Bad Boy In Blue
After Sam Nuchia took over as chief of the Houston Police Department in 1992, he continued the practice established by predecessor Lee Brown of conducting monthly meetings with representatives of the nine organizations representing HPD's uniformed personnel. Ostensibly, the purpose of those meetings is to give officers input into the chief's decisions. But Nuchia -- a former federal prosecutor and a future state appellate judge -- always held his power tightly and never relinquished a jot of control. During the polite affairs, Nuchia listened to the employee representatives, but in the end, he always made it clear that it was either his way or the highway. And until last August, it was always Nuchia's way.
But during that month's session, someone asked the chief a question about a committee that had been formed to tackle compensation issues. In answering, Nuchia expressed his irritation that the Houston Police Officers Union -- the city's oldest police-employee group -- had had the gall to criticize his boss, Mayor Bob Lanier. The compensation group in question included an HPOU representative, and, Nuchia noted, any HPOU connection would taint a request for a pay increase.
Most likely, that was the moment Hans Marticiuc (pronounced MAR-ti-chek) had been waiting for. The stocky, burr-headed 44-year-old had presided over the HPOU since the previous January, and in that time, had aggressively sought confrontation -- be it with the mayor, with the other employee groups or with Nuchia.
"I told him that Lanier had no credibility and that he didn't either," recalls Marticiuc proudly.
The heads of the other groups were appalled.
"I put my head down and said, 'Oh my God, he can't be saying all of this,' " recalls May Walker, president of the Afro-American Police Officers League. "It made us all cringe. I think the chief was shocked, too. You don't talk to your top administrator like that. I'm not going to say what he said, but he said some nasty stuff."
Nuchia declined to be interviewed for this story. But others at the meeting generally confirm Marticiuc's version of events. Their accounts differ only in the degree to which Marticiuc laced his comments with barnyard epithets.
The chief asked Marticiuc to leave the room, threatening to charge him with insubordination.
"I said, 'Well, you're probably right,' " says Marticiuc, savoring the memory. " 'I understand this is a breeding ground for Internal Affairs Division complaints.' So I left."
The tactics failed to impress Nuchia -- or Walker.
"Hans is a mental case," she says, "and you can quote me."
Marticiuc prefers to characterize his tactics as "aggressive." He's a man on a mission -- critics call it a kamikaze mission -- to improve the lives of Houston police officers. He believes that his organization -- and thus, he -- should be the sole voice of the department's 4,900 men and women when it comes to negotiating pay and benefits. And he doesn't care what points of etiquette he violates, or who he pisses off in pursuit of that objective.
Marticiuc appears to relish his image as a bomb-throwing bad boy. He tries to suppress a wry smile as he recalls his various run-ins, but it breaks out anyway. Even so, he professes to feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. His image, he claims, is merely a labor leader's tool. "You're not going to get anywhere by being a nice police officer, a good boy or girl," he explains. "It's not going to happen."
Marticiuc attributes his stubborn streak to his Teutonic heritage. He was born in Austria; his parents moved to upstate New York when he was four, and he grew up and went to college there. He makes his decision to be a police officer sound almost accidental -- and, tellingly, the product of impatience: "At college, Communications had a line out the door," he explains. "Criminal Justice had about 15 people."
He worked as a campus police officer for the University of Chicago and then as a special agent for Southern Pacific Railroad in California before moving to Houston in 1980 to work for HPD, when the understaffed department was struggling to keep up with the increase in crime brought about by the boom. He was assigned to the southeast patrol division, and has spent his entire Houston career working the evening shift. It's one of the few constants in his life. Three times married and three times divorced, Marticiuc has a 13-year-old daughter he calls "my most solid rock."
Marticiuc explains that he -- like every other HPD officer -- needs more money.
"For 17 years I've been working 70 hours a week and extra jobs so I can put money away for my kid for school, and for me to retire," he says. "And believe me, I don't live outlandishly. I don't want to be crying, but that doesn't mean we can't take control and shake things up a little bit."
As Marticiuc constantly points out, Houston's police salaries trail those of other Texas cities. For example, the base pay for a Houston officer tops out at $37,092 after 11 years; officers with the Pasadena Police Department reach the high end of their pay scale -- $40,644 -- in just eight years. In other words, Pasadena cops make more money faster. And so do cops in San Antonio, Dallas and the Harris County Sheriff's Department.
The Lanier administration argues that Houston officers don't take home as much money in their paychecks as do their counterparts elsewhere because, in recent years, HPD employee groups have chosen increased benefits and better retirement options instead of raises. But better benefits, says Marticiuc, don't pay officers' rent and child support. He also likes to point to a 1994 police wage and benefit survey by the Labor Relations Information System of Portland, Oregon, which ranked Houston 210th in police compensation among U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or more. (Houston didn't participate in the 1996 survey.)
Just two years after joining the department, Marticiuc was elected to the Houston Police Officers Association board of directors. HPOA had been founded in 1945, but by the time Marticiuc arrived on the scene, the organization was little more than a club whose leaders organized softball leagues.
In many ways, a firebrand such as Marticiuc would have seemed better suited for the more radical -- but much smaller -- Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, which had split from HPOA in 1979. Officer Bob Thomas was the union's first president; at the time, he presided over six other members.
But Thomas and his pals preferred hardball to softball.
"We came out with a union with no intramural sports and a get-in-your-face attitude," recalls Thomas. "We became very aggressive and we hired some very aggressive lawyers."
During the early '80s, HPPU was shamelessly confrontational. At press conferences, Thomas blasted Mayor Kathy Whitmire and her chief, Lee Brown. Union members picketed Whitmire's home and followed her to speaking engagements.
The tactics paid off: HPPU flourished. By 1984, the union had swelled to include 2,100 officers -- about half the force -- and it was challenging the older, more staid HPOA as the largest police employee group.
Marticiuc views HPPU's formation as the worst thing that ever happened to the Houston Police Department. He says he understands why Bob Thomas and others grew impatient with the old, slow-moving association; but their leaving meant that for the past 17 years the department's rank-and-file has been divided -- and thus in a severely diminished bargaining position.
HPPU's success put HPOA on notice: To survive, it needed to change. In 1985, association members elected Mark Clark, a serious-minded president who attended less to softball and more to politics. But HPOA remained more conservative and less confrontational than HPPU.
That changed with Marticiuc's election last November. Since then, says Thomas, Marticiuc has become the most aggressive labor leader the police department has seen since, well, himself.
During Marticiuc's presidency, the two police groups have reversed roles. Last summer, HPOA even dropped the wishy-washy "association" from its name and replaced it with the tougher-sounding "union." And thus the HPOA was reborn as the HPOU.
"I hate to say this," says Thomas, who's now a lawyer with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, "but I think the union has turned into the association, and the association has turned into the union."
At his union office, on a small credenza opposite his desk, Marticiuc displays a framed picture of roadkill. At the base of the frame, an inscription declares, "There's nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos."
Few would accuse Marticiuc of being middle-of-the-road. Immediately after taking over as president, he began running a series of gag photographs on the cover of Badge and Gun, the association's newspaper. The obviously doctored photos always portray the plight of fictional officer Don N. Out, and they're as subtle as a karate chop -- or as Marticiuc himself. On one cover, Officer Out stands in front of City Hall with a "Will Work for Food" sign. On another, he and Mayor Lanier -- his jowly face pasted onto a body wearing a Rockets uniform -- stand outside the Astrodome. In a speech balloon, Out lists his priorities: "Food ... shelter ... clothing ... kids' college ... insurance ... SPORTS?" Lanier orders him to get those priorities in order.
Badge and Gun's most audacious cover showed Lanier standing in a shower stall next to a uniformed officer who's bending over and bears the pasted-on face of HPPU president David Mireles. "Pick up my soap, officer," commands the Lanier figure. "Sure, Mr. Mayor ..." replies the Mireles figure.
Those photos -- coupled with Marticiuc's mayor-criticizing TV appearances -- struck a raw nerve with Nuchia. In June, the chief responded by issuing a general order concerning the circumstances under which an officer could and could not wear his uniform.
"Employees will not use their office in any manner for the purpose of furthering their own or another's political campaign interests," reads the order. "Employees will not appear in any political advertisement, whether in print or on video, wearing any portion of the department-issued uniform or any other uniform which resembles that issued by the Houston Police Department."
(Nuchia apparently didn't believe the general order applied to him. In September, he attended a Grandparents Day luncheon, broadcast by the Municipal Channel. During his speech, the chief -- in full uniform -- reminded his audience that he was running for the First Court of Appeals.)
No sooner had Nuchia issued that order than Marticiuc violated it. Alongside his column, Badge and Gun ran a photo of him in uniform.
Nuchia then ordered what would be the first of six Internal Affairs investigations of Marticiuc, who says that all of the complaints against him have to do with his actions as a labor leader. (All six are still pending; the department refuses to comment on IAD investigations.)
Marticiuc acknowledges that the probes could cost him his career. "I've tried to put my finances in order," he says. He laughs, but underneath, his tone is serious. He acknowledges that he's not supposed to discuss the investiga- tions until they're concluded. He shrugs, then says, "Let's talk about them anyway."
He wrote a letter to Internal Affairs, explaining that the general order regarding uniforms was vague and, in his attorney's opinion, a violation of the First Amendment.
The probes seem to have had little effect on Marticiuc. On the front page of Badge and Gun's December issue is a photo of Marticiuc and 20 other board union members. All are in uniform.
Marticiuc has found plenty of other ways to needle the city administration and win the loyalty of his fellow officers. In April, Marticiuc took out two weeks' worth of classified ads seeking a Lanier look-alike for a series of billboards criticizing the mayor. In August, at Marticiuc's urging, HPOU's membership adopted a resolution of no confidence in Nuchia. More recently, Marticiuc and the HPOU staked out positions against the mayor's, opposing the annexation of Kingwood and the construction of a downtown baseball stadium. All of those actions came to naught: The billboards have yet to go up, Nuchia was elected to the appeals bench, Kingwood was annexed and voters approved the stadium.
Other Marticiuc stunts have met with arguable success. This spring, he declared "Traffic Ticket Tolerance Month," hoping to pressure the department to stop using the number of tickets an officer writes as part of his job-performance evaluation. To get his point across, Marticiuc suggested that during the month of April, instead of writing tickets for minor traffic violations, officers should write warnings instead.
Not surprisingly, just before Marticiuc was to hold a press conference, he was summoned to the chief's office. Nuchia asked what the hell was going on.
"He knew what it was about, and I knew what it was about," remembers Marticiuc. "We're the fourth largest city in the nation, our pay sucks and you're seeing a whole different kind of police labor organization."
He also says Nuchia told him that what he was doing was illegal, and that he could lose his job, spend time in jail and never work as a police officer again.
Marticiuc, though, was careful in his wording. Officers have always had the discretion whether to write a ticket during a traffic stop. Marticiuc simply encouraged them to use that discretion. Technically, what he was urging was legal, and Nuchia couldn't touch him.
Marticiuc pronounces "Traffic Ticket Tolerance Month" a victory, claiming that the department's southeast patrol recorded a 50 percent reduction in tickets and that the central and North Shepherd patrols also posted lower numbers. And certainly, the publicity irked Lanier and Nuchia -- perhaps Marticiuc's true intent.
But viewed strictly by the numbers, "Traffic Ticket Tolerance Month" flopped. Figures from the Houston municipal court show that, in fact, more tickets were written in April than the month before. In April, Houston police officers -- along with airport and Metro police and Harris County constables -- wrote 68,691 traffic citations. That compares with 68,176 in March and 73,560 in May.
Marticiuc explains that he was undercut by his rivals, the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, whose leaders urged members to double their ticket writing. There's no way to determine whether HPPU members actually handed out more tickets in April. But if the union was successful in undermining Marticiuc's plan, it is one of the few battles with him that HPPU has won. And if Marticiuc has his way, HPPU won't be around much longer to annoy him.
Soon after Marticiuc took office as president, he tried to merge the Houston Police Officers Association with HPPU. A single union would have greater bargaining power with the city, and greater leverage in the Legislature -- and that greater strength might eventually win cops higher pay.
But HPPU rebuffed Marticiuc's overtures -- as it had the overtures of Marticiuc's predecessor. In hindsight, Marticiuc claims he's glad that he was turned down. HPPU, he says, didn't want to open its books; the U.S. Department of Labor is now investigating allegations by former members that HPPU funds are mysteriously missing. The union's leaders deny that there's been any misappropriation and say that the investigation will clear them. But the investigation is obviously burdensome; Marticiuc says that he's happy his organization isn't "tainted with their problems."
After HPPU spurned Marticiuc's courtship, he adopted a new strategy: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em. The Houston Police Officers Association restructured itself as a tougher, lower-to-the-ground bargaining machine. Its constitution was reformulated to give lower-ranking cops more power, and the group's name was changed to the HPOU to reflect its new aggression.
The new acronym was only a letter away from that of the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, and HPPU was hopping mad that Marticiuc had invaded its turf. The group eventually filed a civil suit against the HPOU, claiming that the new name was "deceptively similar" to HPPU's, and that the renamed organization wasn't a "recognized" union. (Recognition is a matter of interpretation: HPPU is directly affiliated with the AFL-CIO; HPOU is affiliated with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO.)
"They took our name because they have no credibility," charges HPPU vice president Terry Martin. "That way, they can go to the Texas Legislature and fool people into believing they are us."
Marticiuc dismisses the lawsuit as ridiculous, noting that no one has proprietary rights to the word "union." He says the name change had nothing to do with making the acronym similar to HPPU's -- though he readily admits that he hopes to run his rival out of business.
The real battle isn't over acronyms; it's for members. For years, HPOA and HPPU had been neck-and-neck, each vying to be the largest employee group in the department. But after Marticiuc's election, a large number of HPPU members defected to join him. According to HPD's figures, as of November, 3,538 of the department's 4,909 Class-A officers paid dues to HPOU; only 1,585 paid them to HPPU. Obviously, some officers have dual memberships. But even HPPU officials acknowledge that Marticiuc has made a serious dent.
"We've lost between 500 and 700 people," says HPPU's Martin grimly. "But we're still paying the bills."
Some believe that Marticiuc is on the verge of realizing his dream: destroying HPPU, taking over its members and thus creating a single police union that likely would be a powerhouse in city politics. Craig Goralski, president of the Houston Police Officers Pension System, has watched the war between HPOU and HPPU with great interest.
"Hans has his detractors," says Goralski. "But if he pulls this off, it will really be an historic achievement in our department."
May Walker, head of the Afro-American Police Officers League, doesn't mince words on the subject of Marticiuc. "I just believe he's a blatant racist," she says.
She bases her opinion on Marticiuc's opposition to the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit. Three years ago, HPD finally maneuvered to end a federal suit brought by minority officers in 1976. At Nuchia's recommendation, the city and the officers reached a settlement: HPD promised to promote 134 blacks and Hispanics to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant over a five-year period.
HPOA opposed the deal, saying that it hadn't been allowed to participate. In April, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered all the parties back to the negotiating table, and so far there's been no movement toward a compromise.
After Marticiuc took over the HPOA, Walker says, the group's stance toward the suit changed. "It became white against black, that white males were being discriminated against at the police department," she says. "How is that possible when the department is dominated by white males?"
Asked about the accusation of racism, Marticiuc says Walker's words don't merit a response. Instead, he gladly offers his own ideas for settling the lawsuit: His group, say, would agree to let the promoted minority officers keep their positions in return for an across-the-board pay raise.
Since his blowup with Nuchia last August, Marticiuc hasn't had much opportunity to float such plans to anyone in a position to act on them. This week Clarence Bradford, formerly an assistant chief, succeeds Nuchia as head of the Houston Police Department. Just after City Council approved Bradford's appointment, the incoming chief sent word to Marticiuc that he'd like to reopen the lines of communication between the HPD hierarchy and HPOU, and he indicates that he'll fight for officer raises.
Nevertheless, it didn't take Marticiuc long to foul the newly friendly atmosphere. Three days after a cordial getting-to-know-you meeting with Bradford, Marticiuc turned the force of his fury on Lanier, Bradford's boss. While meeting with the representatives of the nine employee groups, Lanier explained that there wasn't much money available for salary increases. And once again, Marticiuc stormed out of a meeting.
The mayor was nonplused.
"I used to negotiate labor contracts many years ago," says Lanier, "and I never thought that style was particularly effective."
Marticiuc disagrees. Lanier, he says, was basically telling the committee "to go take a flying leap." And if the other employee-group leaders "had any snap and any balls at all, they would have sent that old man a message and walked out with me."
Marticiuc seems to enjoy telling the stories about his battles with Nuchia, Lanier and other union leaders, especially to a reporter -- not so much because he likes the spotlight, but because it's one more chance for him to send a message.
"There's no one out there protecting the protectors," says Marticiuc. No one, he means, except him and his HPOU.
Marticiuc rarely misses a chance to deliver that message. Asked to be photographed for this story, he again eagerly seizes the opportunity.
"Yeah, I'll pose for your pictures," he says with that wry grin. "In uniform
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.