When Sam Nuchia returned to the Houston Police Department as chief shortly after Bob Lanier was sworn in as mayor in 1992, most HPD officers couldn't have been happier. Much of the rank and file hated Nuchia's two predecessors, Lee Brown and Elizabeth Watson. Nuchia's appointment moved one homicide investigator to remark, "I'm going to buy a new pair of boots and a new notepad, because I'm going to starting kicking ass and taking names." Two years later, some officers would like to kick Nuchia there and are taking his name in vain.
The latest discord at 61 Reisner Street stems from Nuchia's plan to revamp the way officers are promoted to the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain. Last year, in connection with a lawsuit filed by the Afro-American Police Officers League, federal authorities ruled that the multiple-choice testing system currently used by the department has an adverse impact on minorities. In an effort to come up with a plan that will pass muster with the feds, Nuchia's proposal calls for officers who pass the current test to submit to an "assessment center" where, for example, officials from other cities would come to Houston to conduct oral examinations judging the supervisory skills of officers up for promotion. Teams of "assessors" would then make their recommendations to the chief.
But that plan doesn't sit well with many officers -- especially white officers -- who are quick to point out that before his tenure with the Justice Department, Nuchia fared well under the old system, moving up to the rank of deputy chief (a position that no longer exists).
"Assessment centers are good if they are done right, if they are totally contracted out to an outside company," says one officer who has been following the situation closely. The officer is one of several who agreed to speak frankly but anonymously. "But the assessment-center process, the way it's designed here in Houston, would still leave the chief and the city personnel director in control of the selection of the assessors. That adds a lot of bias."
The officer points out that most major police departments use assessment centers but contract with independent organizations, such as the Police Executive Research Forum, to provide the service.
"Officers young and old and of all ranks are really concerned about the fact that in the end, the city personnel director would pick the assessors here," says the officer. "The city personnel director picks the assessors based on the recommendations of the chief. Now, the chief will tell you there will be a panel of officers from the department submitting names. But he will have the final strike."
In a circular sent to all officers, Nuchia acknowledges that there is a great deal of concern over how the judges for the assessment centers will be chosen. He then promises input from the rank and file.
"It is my plan to have a committee of officers chosen from the [police] employee groups," writes Nuchia, "who will review the lists of available raters from other agencies and make recommendations. I will review the choices and send the names to the city personnel department....
"The proposed promotion system is not a bargaining issue, but rather an attempt to improve our promotional process and the quality of our managers," Nuchia continues. "The present system is hit or miss in the quality of supervisors it produces. Over the years, I have seen a number of highly intelligent, capable officers not reach their potential in the department because they did not have photographic memories and were not willing to sacrifice months of time with their families and other pursuits to compete on a written multiple-choice test. I believe the new system would rectify this because it requires each participant to demonstrate his or her ability to perform in the new job."
In his circular, the chief also estimates the cost of the center at approximately $200,000 a year. And he promotes his plan as "the only system presently in existence that is universally recognized as valid by the federal courts."
Nuchia warns in the circular that without a valid testing system, the department will not be able to defend itself in court. He also claims that none of the police bargaining associations have presented alternative plans.
Not true, say the leaders of the two largest police groups.
"All officers would feel better about the process if they were more involved in it," says Mike Howard, president of the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union. The union leader says his group has suggested that the selection of the assessment teams be determined by a mix of officers, along with representatives from academia and the private sector. He also believes that the old test should continue to be an integral part of the promotion system. Doug Elder, Howard's counterpart at the Houston Police Officers Association, agrees.
"We know the courts have told us there are problems with the current test," says Elder. "It doesn't matter if we agree with that or not. It's been established, and that's the law right now."
Elder also characterizes Nuchia's plan as too vague.
"There wasn't enough clarification in it as to exactly what procedures would be followed and protections built in so that the assessment centers wouldn't be abused at the hands of politicians or someone who wanted to affect the outcome of promotions."
But that kind of thinking baffles Mae Walker, president of the Afro-American Police Officers League -- the organization which originally filed the lawsuit challenging the way officers are promoted within the Houston Police Department.
"Why would you include something [multiple-choice testing] in a process that you just lost a lawsuit over?" asks Walker, who says she believes that some white officers' apprehension about the plan is based more on ignorance than on race.
"I think the misconception is that Nuchia is proposing a plan that's going to benefit minorities, and he's really not," says Walker. "What he does plan is to identify those persons with leadership and supervisory abilities." That's something that is obviously overdue at HPD, which had no minority officers above the rank of sergeant until the mid-1980s.
Some HPD officers do admit that there is fear that Nuchia's new plan is designed specifically to increase minority promotions.
"I think there is a lot of fear among officers that this would be a real strong affirmative action push," says a white officer.
Even some black officers have reservations about Nuchia's proposal.
"The assessment center is a good idea," says a black officer. "Chief Brown used it for assistant chiefs. But the way they're planning on using it now is that the chief of police will be able to pick his assessors. So that kind of makes it unfair for anybody. But the other officers are afraid of not being able to simply take a written exam and pass and move on. But much of it is racial. That's all you hear: 'These monkeys are trying to get something else.'"
Mae Walker also believes that the HPPU and HPOA are out to sabotage Nuchia's plan.
"This chief has bent over backwards to give them the opportunity to let them have input in this assessment process," claims Walker, who attended the meetings and claims that the two larger police organizations offered no counter-proposals.
Even though the feds have ruled against Houston's current method of promotion within the police department, state law requires that any change in that method be approved by a vote of the rank and file. A vote was scheduled for early January. Then Nuchia realized that his plan was in trouble; balloting is now tentatively set for mid-February or early March. A veteran department official predicts that officers will reject the plan.
"We all know there's a better system than what we've got for picking supervisors," says the official. "We all know there should be something better than just reading and memorizing books. But the officers just don't trust Nuchia on this deal, and I don't think he'll get the votes."
The official also senses that Nuchia has lost ground with his officers overall.
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"I think he got off to a hell of a start," says the official. "But I think a lot of [his loss of popularity] is things like his intimidating nature. When he first made chief he would ask for opinions at command staff meetings. But if it wasn't something he agreed with, he'd embarrass the shit out of them. So now nobody says anything. And that's why he didn't realize there were problems with the promotion plan.
"What's keeping him afloat is that overtime money [transferred from the coffers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority]," he adds. "As long as patrol keeps getting that overtime, they'll be happy. If that ever dries up, he's in trouble."
Even though the Metro money continues to fund the overtime program, officers are quick to point out that they have not received a pay increase since February 1992, when they all got a whopping $100-a-month raise across the board. They also have not forgotten that last June Nuchia received a 12.3 percent pay raise, boosting his annual salary to $110,000. And officers are not pleased about impending increases in their insurance premiums. In fact, so deep is their displeasure that some officers, and one union official, have suggested that if the increase goes into effect without officers' receiving more compensation, patrolmen might be writing fewer tickets in the near future, cutting city revenue.
"We might be issuing fewer tickets and more warnings," says one officer. "That could cost the city millions. [Former Mayor] Kathy Whitmire learned the hard way. Uncle Bob [Lanier] can only raid Metro so long.