Dropped cases reveal Houston police dysfunction beyond Finner’s reach

Since Houston Police Department Chief Troy Finner revealed in February that officers improperly dropped massive numbers of criminal investigations by labeling them “Suspended – Lack of Personnel,” the fallout has claimed four top HPD executives: Two assistant chiefs have been demoted, one executive has resigned – and last night, Finner quit, too.

And the results of an internal investigation into the matter — which is virtually certain to implicate more people — haven’t even been released yet. Mayor John Whitmire has said the “dumb person that came up with that code” is no longer at HPD.

But the scandal engulfing the department today is not about the failings of one person or a select few. It’s about a total system failure, according to a Houston Chronicle review of hundreds of pages of documents and more than a dozen interviews.

What began as a plan to keep better data in an apparent attempt to justify hiring more officers became a dumping ground for tens of thousands of reports of serious crimes that contained solid clues but never got any follow-up in America’s fourth-largest city.

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“When you get into a large bureaucratic institution, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing just because they are so disconnected,” said Diana Poor, who served as HPD’s planning director from 2017 to 2021. “Without clear guidance and data structures and guidelines, you will have things like this happen.”

The Chronicle found Houston police have shelved investigations into minor crimes due to lack of staffing for decades. For burglary and theft investigators the very definition of a “suspended” case was one that had workable leads but no detectives free to run them down.

But in 2014, with the department’s investigative struggles under fire and the chief pleading for more resources, HPD’s planning office openly discussed creating a “Suspended – Lack of Personnel” code for violent crimes, too.

The chief at that time said he wasn’t looped in on discussions about this “SL” code, and said he would not have approved it, stressing that every serious crime should be assigned to a detective for at least some follow-up.

Yet HPD brass were not required to sign off when the code was added to the department’s computer system in 2016, nor was anyone charged with ensuring investigators used the code consistently. Many seasoned leaders who could have overseen its implementation also left HPD that year, as a push for pension reform created an exodus of command staff.

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In its review of the 260,000 incident reports found to have been coded “SL,” HPD has found that a large chunk were mislabeled. But tens of thousands of investigations were indeed improperly dropped, including cases involving “egregious” crimes, Finner has said.

In dozens of cases, forensic testing shows suspects who were allowed to walk free may have later struck again. For instance, police suspended an investigation in 2022 after a woman reported that an acquaintance sexually assaulted her while she slept, even though she named the perpetrator and submitted a rape kit at a nearby hospital. A year later, the DNA evidence collected matched with a suspect who allegedly raped another woman at gunpoint.

“It almost sounds like the code itself established a foothold and became a crutch for people to use,” said Dwayne Ready, a retired HPD commander who led the department’s Homicide and Major Offenders divisions.

Ready said he never allowed his officers to suspend investigations before assigning them to a detective because “it’s easy to just suspend something and then you can turn a blind eye to it.”

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“You don’t suspend and close things just for lack of manpower,” he said. “You prioritize things, but you keep them open.”

For years, HPD leaders tried to address the systemic problems that led to such a breakdown. They upgraded computer systems, pleaded for more resources, and revamped data collection practices. Much of their progress was derailed by constant turnover and attrition, along with a series of crises — from Hurricane Harvey to the discovery of egregious conduct in HPD’s narcotics unit to the coronavirus pandemic.

By November 2021, when Finner said he ordered his command staff to put a stop to the use of the “SL” code, the system allowing it to flourish was entrenched. The day after Finner’s order, another crisis hit the department: the Astroworld tragedy. Despite Finner’s verbal directive, data show investigators started applying the code even more frequently.

The family of Rodolfo “Rudy” Peña, middle photograph, embraces in front of the memorial for Astroworld Festival victims outside NRG Park on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Houston. Peña was one of the victims from the crowd surge at the festival. Godofredo A. Vásquez/Staff photographer

Today, the department says the code is no longer in use. But in a statement to the Chronicle this week, HPD spokesman Kese Smith acknowledged that there is more work to be done.

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“Chief Finner has said there will be drastic changes to the culture and operations of the department to move past this and stands by his commitment to investigate every violent crime,” Smith said.

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