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No Time for Sergeants

You're always told that if you work hard, you'll be rewarded," says Sergeant Sandy Klein. But last week, the 19-year veteran of the Houston Police Department found out otherwise, when she and Sergeant Jan Meanix-Garza were transferred out of the department's family violence unit -- the unit they founded six years ago and had developed into one of the best of its kind in the country.

"This is a real slap in the face and a bitter pill to swallow," says Klein.
In 1990, then-chief Lee Brown assigned Klein and Meanix-Garza to create a family violence unit in the Houston Police Department. At the time, relations between women and the department were at an all-time low. The previous fall, an off-duty officer shot and killed a 50-year-old grandmother, Ida Lee Delaney, on the side of the Southwest Freeway. Around the same time, in separate cases, two Houston police officers were accused of sexual assault. And those cases, says a local women's advocate, were just the ones that received publicity.

"Prior to the creation of the family violence unit, women were at loggerheads with the police department over the way it handled domestic violence survivors," says Mitzi Vorachek with the Houston Area Women's Center. "The Delaney case was just the catalyst for change."

Klein and Meanix-Garza got results. According to a survey by the Women's Center, since the formation of the family violence unit, the department has cut in half its response time to reports of domestic violence. That reduction, says Vorachek, indicates Houston police officers now consider domestic violence a serious crime.

Besides investigating reports of family violence, and teaching others on the force to do the same, Klein and Meanix-Garza also mended fences with the women's community. And through sensitivity classes at the police academy, the pair tried to transform HPD into a more gender-appreciative organization.

"When it comes to dealing with domestic violence, these two women carried the Houston Police Department kicking and screaming into the 20th century," says Cindy Merrill, the chief prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's family crimes law division.

But, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.
Last Saturday, Klein, Meanix-Garza and ten other sergeants were shipped out of their detective positions and back to patrol, in an effort to fill what Chief Sam Nuchia contends is a shortage of sergeants in that division. Their old jobs -- investigative slots in family violence, homicide, burglary and theft, robbery, auto theft and major offenders -- will be filled by lower-ranking patrol officers.

As for Meanix-Garza and Klein, they'll be supervising patrol officers on the evening shift at the Beechnut substation, where both have transferred.

"We've worked so well together," says Klein, "we decided it didn't make sense to break up a good team."

At least, not to some people.

The shakeup marks the first step in Nuchia's plan for the "patrolmanization" of the Houston Police Department. Traditionally, sergeants have filled positions in the investigative divisions. Under Nuchia's plan, most of the 237 sergeants in the investigative divisions will eventually be replaced by regular officers who, in his opinion, will be able to do the jobs just as well. Those officers will work in squads of four or five and will be supervised by a sergeant.

The transfers are also meant to address a 20-year-old lawsuit aimed at increasing the number of minorities in the force's super- visory positions. In one of the ironies of a changing police force, women -- as represented by Klein and Meanix-Garza -- lost a round to racial minorities.

The lawsuit dates back to 1976, when HPD minority officers saw racial bias in the tests on which the department based promotions. The suit dragged on for 17 years with little movement. Then three years ago, at Nuchia's recommendation, the city and the minority officers reached a settlement: over five years, HPD promised to promote 106 black and Hispanic officers to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant.

When U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes signed off on the plan, it appeared to be a done deal. But shortly after Hughes approved the settlement, two predominantly white labor groups -- the Houston Police Officers Association (now the Houston Police Officers' Union) and the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union -- filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans, complaining that they had not been allowed to participate in the settlement. The two groups also contended the settlement was unfair to white officers.

This past April the appeals court set aside the agreement between the city and the minority officers, saying that the HPOU and HPPU must be part of any settlement deliberations. The day after the ruling, Nuchia announced that HPD would make no more promotions to sergeant or lieutenant until a compromise is reached. Three and a half months later, there is no compromise in sight.

Due to attrition, Nuchia maintains, the department now faces a serious shortage of supervisors in the patrol division. "Where you need supervision the most is on the frontline with the patrol officers," explains HPD public information chief Jack Cato, adding the department aims for a ratio of one sergeant for every eight patrolmen. "You have to have supervision and accountability at that level."

But in the opinion of HPOU president Hans Marticiuc, the shortage of patrol sergeants is a manufactured crisis. He points out that it was Nuchia -- not the court -- who froze promotions.

"We've got people who are waiting to be promoted," says Marticiuc, whose organization gave Nuchia a vote of no-confidence earlier this summer. "He should continue with the promotions and stop jacking around with officers' careers. But if he does that, he's got no way to pressure us. Old Sam has basically decided to use these people to get back at us for not bowing down to the lawsuit. This is his way of trying to force us into a settlement."

Marticiuc also charges that the chief's plan does not make good sense from a public safety standpoint. The labor leader says it is not wise to remove experienced detectives from sensitive investigative divisions and replace them with patrolmen who will have to go through a training period. Likewise, he says, it's a bad plan for sergeants who haven't been on patrol in years to suddenly plunge back in.

Captain Richard Holland, who oversees the homicide and family violence divisions, declined to comment on Nuchia's patrolmanization plan. But he admits the patrol officers transferring to his division will face a learning curve. During this first round of transfers, in addition to Meanix-Garza and Klein, Holland also lost Sergeant Mike Peters, widely regarded as one of the best and brightest detectives in the homicide division.

"You don't replace people of that caliber overnight," says Holland. "It's a critical loss."

Police spokesman Cato acknowledges the department has received calls and letters from concerned citizens and concedes that they have legitimate complaints.

"We've had all sorts of calls about Sergeant Mike Walsh [of the environmental investigations unit] because he's built up an expertise that's irreplaceable," says Cato. "[Major Offenders Sergeant] Roy House retired rather than transfer, and he has more expertise on the con games and gypsies than anybody in this part of the world."

But, explains Cato, police officers should be able to work wherever they are assigned. And by transferring the sergeants with the least seniority first, Cato says the chief is trying to be as fair as he can.

That explanation isn't enough for some Houston police officers -- including, according to department sources, most members of Nuchia's command staff.

"If the president of Enron made this sort of decision, he'd be fired," says one HPD veteran. The officer also points out that Houstonians will soon have a rare opportunity to weigh in on Nuchia's decision.

In November, voters will cast their ballot for, among other things, an associate justice for the 1st Court of Appeals. They will choose between two candidates: Democrat George Ellis and Republican Sam Nuchia.

"I plan to do my answering to this at the voting booth," says the officer. "And I'm going to see how many other people I can convince to do the same.


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