Play It Again, Sam!
It may or may not have put the fear of the Lord in the hearts of area gang members, but the recent announcement by Houston police chief Sam Nuchia of a new zero-tolerance crackdown on gangs has raised questions among members of Nuchia's own command staff and among civil libertarians.
In early January, Nuchia held a press conference to tell the media that $1.6 million in drug forfeiture money has been allocated to free up patrol officers to roust youths fitting the gang-member profile, starting in the city's southwest and westside areas. Nuchia hopes to expand the gang-busters program citywide in the near future.
uchia says the task force will comprise 20 officers in two-man units with "the express intent of making it very hot on the streets for young people who are identified as gang members or who exhibit the characteristics that have been identified and attributed to gang members. It means that in this part of town young people who dress like gang members will probably find, if they are out at suspicious times of the day or night, that officers will probably stop and talk to them and make some inquiries."
That sort of talk reminds some members of Nuchia's own gang about a similar, controversial zero-tolerance program implemented last year in places such as the Fourth Ward. That plan generated several allegations that young black men were strip-searched in public. The department was also embarrassed during that effort when some zealous officers ticketed three black youths for walking against traffic down a one-way street. Following public outcry, the tickets were eventually dismissed. After a respected local minister was pulled over for a traffic violation and detained for what he called an excessive amount of time, the Christian Coalition for Change/Ministers Against Crime held a spirited and lengthy meeting with Nuchia and Mayor Bob Lanier. Complaints subsequently subsided.
One senior member of the police department thinks this latest initiative is rife with similar possibilities for allegations of civil-rights breaches.
"When you try to go to zero-tolerance just because people are dressed a certain way and they're ganging up, I don't think that's the right way to do things," says the official. "I think they are going to have some civil-rights [abuse allegations] before it's over with."
On the other hand, the official also acknowledges that there is growing public concern about gang activity.
"I may be wrong," the official says. "People might be so fed up with crime that they go for [zero tolerance]. But it's scary that this nation might get so caught up in the fear of crime that they throw all caution about civil rights to the wind. Because, for the grace of God, might go I.
"I know there are some bad actors out there, but sooner or later some innocent is going to get caught up in [the crackdown]."
Although part of the crackdown includes plans to create alternative forms of youth recreation, the official thinks that that phase of the plan should have been initiated first. Gladys House, a member of the Freedman's Town Association who was involved in the outcry over the last zero-tolerance program, agrees with the police official.
Why keep paying somebody who is already employed, the police department?" asks House. "Let's spread some of that money around to unemployed people like our youth. That's our future. I think the money should be applied to setting up youth centers in disadvantaged neighborhoods. You can continue to build prisons or you can cut the problem off before it gets started good."
House also fears that the crack-down will generate civil-rights abuses.
"All it is, is a doorway to violate some more constitutional and human rights of individuals," says House. "More than likely it's going to be disadvantaged people, people of color."
Debbie Perkey, regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says her organization expects to field complaints.
"I have concerns about [the zero-tolerance plan]," says Perkey. "I know [the police] are trying to do something about crime, and that is a good objective. But to me, to do something about crime does not necessarily mean that you have to throw out the Constitution. And I think politicians forget that. Not that they're going to. But from the stuff that I've seen, I think we may have a problem."
That possibility also concerns the police official, who says aggressive young officers assigned to the task force could soon have records with the department's internal affairs division that would adversely affect their careers. A veteran patrol officer agrees.
"State law dictates what kind of complaints can be lodged against an officer, but IAD, per Nuchia, is still taking anything and everything," says the officer. "If you call IAD and tell them that I wrote you a ticket and you weren't happy with the way I wrote it, then they invite you in to make a sworn statement, then I've got an active IAD file."
When the Press contacted the mayor's office to inquire about safeguards against a repeat of last year's problems and allegations, we were referred to the two statements that were issued after last fall's marathon meeting among Lanier, Nuchia and the ministers. The first, issued by the mayor, promised (among other things) more sensitivity training for Houston police. It also said "the mayor and chief of police commit to the practice that Houston police officers will be courteous, professional and respectful to the citizens of this city in the execution of all their duties."
Service with a smile. Civil libertarians will surely sleep easier now.
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