13 Investigates what's happened since HPD's 'suspended' code was identified as an issue a decade ago

Sarah Rafique Image
Thursday, March 21, 2024
City council sounded alarm in 2014 about 20K HPD cases uninvestigated
As an investigation continues into the suspension of 260,000 HPD cases, new details revealed city council members sounded the alarm on this 10 years ago.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Houston Police Department suspended more than 260,000 incident reports made during the last eight years, including some for violent crimes, citing a "lack of personnel."

HPD Chief Troy Finner said last month that his department was reviewing 4,000 alleged sexual assault incident reports that were suspended due to a "lack of personnel" code that was wrongfully assigned to those cases.

Two weeks later, after an internal review, HPD identified 260,000 incidents dating back to 2016 that were assigned the "suspended - lack of personnel" code, all while victims were unaware their cases were not being investigated.

Any victims whose contact information has changed since the time of their report can call (713) 308-1180 or email specialvictimsreport@houstonpolice.org.

In the last month, two assistant chiefs have been demoted, Houston Mayor John Whitmire appointed what he's calling an "independent" panel and HPD is conducting its own internal affairs investigation.

Finner admits he knew about the code in November 2021 and said he instructed staff to stop using it then. But, HPD hasn't provided 13 Investigates with documents or details on how or if he informed staff or followed-up on his previous concerns with the code.

Our 13 Investigates team has sent dozens of open records requests to HPD and Mayor Whitmire's office to dig into when the cases first were suspended due to lack of staffing, when HPD and city leaders learned about it and how they responded. But, HPD is not releasing that information, instead asking the Texas Attorney General if they can withhold those documents.

One of 13 Investigates' requests for memos and presentations related to the "lack of personnel" code was sent to the AG, with HPD arguing it's part of an "open investigation being conducted by HPD's Internal Affairs Division of alleged improper police procedure."

HPD also argues some of the requested information was "draft verbiage of an incomplete memorandum of understanding" and "consists entirely of interagency correspondence concerning the policy matter at issue and was never intended for public release."

Although HPD released some data on the suspended incident reports, they did not release everything we asked for, including the names of the individuals who coded reports with the "SL" status.

As 13 Investigates continues to hold city leaders accountable, here's what we know so far.

2013: Thousands of HPD cases not investigated

As an investigation continues into the suspension of 260,000 HPD cases, new details revealed city council members sounded the alarm on this 10 years ago.

A study conducted by Public Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., and Justex Systems Inc. in Huntsville identifies key issues with HPD, including staffing concerns and thousands of cases that were not investigated due to lack of personnel. The report was published in May 2014.

The study found, "A survey of Investigative Division commanders revealed excessively high numbers of cases with leads that were not investigated in 2013 due to lack of personnel: for Burglary and Theft, nearly 15,000; nearly 3,000 assault cases in the Homicide Division; nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs. The situation is so egregious in Burglary and Theft that a separate increase (in investigative staffing) is recommended ... for that unit. However, every unit should be staffed such that all cases with leads receive at least some attention. Achieving that end should be the focus of the allocation of any new resources."

June 2, 2014: Cases not investigated situation 'cries for attention'

The May 2014 study was presented to city council members at a Public Safety Committee meeting on June 2, 2014.

Nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs were not followed up where there were leads, and I emphasize where there were leads, not simply cases that were dead in the water, no place to go with them.
Dr. Larry Hoover to city council in 2014

During that meeting, Dr. Larry Hoover, who at the time was President of Justex Systems Inc., said the cases that were not investigated is a "situation which cries for attention" and that "every unit should be staffed such that all cases with leads receive at least some attention rather than go in the file cabinet."

"Nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs were not followed up where there were leads, and I emphasize where there were leads, not simply cases that were dead in the water, no place to go with them," he said.

June 5, 2014: City addresses 'mean-spirited' editorial on cases not investigated

Then-City council member Jack Christie said he wants to give then-HPD Chief Charles McClelland a chance to respond to a "mean-spirited" newspaper editorial that highlights the 20,000 cases that were not investigated.

McClelland said the issue is not unique to HPD.

"There has never been a time that I have been employed that the Houston Police Department has the capacity to investigate every crime that's been reported to the agency," said McClelland, who at the time had been with HPD for 37 years. "They're very minor crimes. I don't want to dismiss that if someone was a victim of crime, but they are. But they have lower (or) no solvability factors, that's why they're not worked."

However, the study's authors contradicted that, saying some of those cases that weren't investigated did have leads.

Still, McClelland said the study recommended 100 more detectives, but added that staff would "not give the capacity to work 20,000 cases."

During fiscal year 2015, there were 5,305 classified personnel. Nearly a decade later, there are fewer officers than when the work study identified staffing as an issue. There are 5,187 classified personnel at HPD in 2024.

2016: HPD says staff first started using 'SL' code

Staff began using "suspended - lack of personnel" code to label incident reports in 2016, according to current police Chief Troy Finner.

Data HPD provided 13 Investigates shows the "SL" code was used 15 times from 1986 through 2013. It was used a few hundred times in the next few years. Then, in 2018 HPD data shows use of the "SL" code skyrocketed and was used 34,702 times that year.

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13 Investigates reached out to Art Acevedo, who was HPD chief in 2016.

In a statement, he told us "I've been asked to comment on the use of the case management code, 'SL, suspended - lack of personnel' by investigative units at the Houston Police Department to suspend or close criminal investigations. To be clear, the use of this code was not authorized by me nor was I apprised of its use. While acknowledging the longstanding issue of understaffing within HPD, along with the challenges posed by outdated record management and analytical technology, it was my expectation that comprehensive investigations be conducted and completed whenever evidence and leads were present."

November 2021: Finner learns of internal 'Suspended - Lack of Personnel' code

About six months into being police chief, Finner learns staff are suspending incident reports due to lack of personnel using a code in the department's internal records management system.

"At that time, I directed the Special Victims Division to stop using this code," Finner said on Feb. 22, 2024, his first news conference addressing the issue.

February 7, 2024: Chief Finner learns adult sex assault investigations suspended due to lack of staff

More than two years after the police chief said he instructed staff to stop using an internal code to label incident reports suspended for lack of personnel, Finner said he learned it was still being used to assign statuses to incident reports.

It was unacceptable then. It is unacceptable now.
HPD Chief Troy Finner

"I immediately ordered a review of those cases. That code was put into effect in 2016. It will not be used again in my administration. It was unacceptable then. It is unacceptable now," Finner said.

Finner said he launched an internal investigation and said every sexual assault incident report dating back to 2016 with the suspended code would be reviewed.

February 15, 2024: 13 Investigates receives tip about on suspended cases

13 Investigates received an anonymous tip that sexual assault cases were "suspended due to lack of manpower."

February 22, 2024: Chief Finner holds first press conference on suspended cases

HPD Chief Troy Finner says over 4,000 adult sexual assault cases will be reviewed after being labeled suspended due to lack of personnel.

Finner announced they have identified 4,017 adult sex crime incident reports that were labeled as suspended due to a lack of personnel. In the last two weeks, he said investigators have already reviewed about 700 reports.

I promise the Houston Police Department will correct this and there will be accountability.
HPD Chief Troy Finner

The chief said the number of incident reports slated for review is preliminary and could change over the next 30 days. Part of the investigation involves looking at whether incident reports have been coded incorrectly as sexual assault and weeding through duplicate reports.

"If we have missed investigating even one sexual assault, we have failed," Finner said. "I promise the Houston Police Department will correct this and there will be accountability."

Finner said he's reallocating 32 HPD staff members to support the Adult Sex Crimes Unit and review the incident reports and contact potential sexual assault victims in a trauma-informed way.

February 26, 2024: 260k incident reports suspended due to lack of staff since 2016

The situation at HPD over suspended cases led ABC13 to ask questions at the sheriff's office about the way they handle "lack of personnel."

Although Finner initially said there were more than 4,000 adult sex crime incident reports suspended due to lack of staff, a review of other divisions found the issue was more widespread, with one in every 10 incident reports suspended.

"We have determined that department-wide approximately 264,000 such incident reports since 2016 were suspended with this code. That figure represents about 10 percent of the 2.8 million incident reports filed with HPD in the past eight years. Of those 264,000 reports, about 100,000 of them are property crimes," Finner said in a statement.

Mayor John Whitmire releases a statement saying he is "very concerned."

"It is unacceptable and I have instructed Chief Finner to be transparent and continue his review as a top priority. Public safety continues to be my highest priority," Whitmire said.

February 28, 2024: Survivors fear suspended cases will discourage victims

A group of sexual assault survivors addressed the media this morning to discuss their feelings on the news that 4,000 such cases within the Houston Police Department have been suspended due to a lack of personnel.

Sylvia Rodriguez, a sexual assault survivor, was among the people who spoke out at a gathering organized by the Houston Area Women's Center.

Although her case is not among those that were suspended by HPD, she and other survivors said they still thought it was important for them to share their stories and speak out for other victims of sexual assault whose incident reports may have been suspended.

"This news tells us we don't matter," she said. "This is terrible."

February 29, 2024: Finner says reaching sex assault victims is 'priority'

Finner forgoes holding a news conference, instead releasing a statement on social media saying, "Right now, our priority remains reaching out and personally contacting those who filed an adult sex crime incident report."

"This morning, we assembled more than 100 special assignment officers to visit last known addresses of those who filed reports. The officers join the recently assigned 32 investigators and supervisors who are reaching out via phone or email," Dinner said. "Advocates in our Victim Services Division are also assisting to provide trauma-informed support to survivors. As promised, we will do everything we can to reach every person who filed an adult sex crime incident report."

March 1, 2024: Finner issues circular on suspended cases

Finner issues a circular with the subject line "CASE STATUS / DISPOSITION CODES" to be read at roll call every day for five days.

It informs staff that the investigative case status code of suspended - lack of personnel is no longer visible in HPD's internal records management system.

In bold letters, the circular says it "serves as a reminder that the case status code SL (Suspended - Lack of Personnel) shall not be used."

Finner also instructs commanders to "review the case status codes weekly to ensure compliance with this directive."

March 6, 2024: Mayor appoints 'independent panel'

Mayor John Whitmire announced that an independent panel will review the Houston Police Department's 264,000 suspended cases.

Whitmire said he will appoint an "independent panel" to review HPD's suspended cases in an effort to ensure transparency.

"I trust and believe Police Chief Troy Finner is doing the best he can to manage the internal investigation, get to the bottom of it, and hold people accountable. The independent panel will be people I also trust to review and validate the outcome and help bring closure to the victims," Whitmire said. "I am deeply concerned about how and why this happened. The public wants answers and accountability. This process of appointing an independent panel will validate the investigation's integrity."

March 7, 2024: Two HPD assistant chiefs demoted

HPD assistant chiefs Kevin Deese and Ernest Garcia were demoted as the department investigates why 260,000 incidents were labeled suspended due to lack of personnel since 2016.

Assistant chiefs are in charge of signing off on changes to the Houston police handbook, which, as of last week, still contained the code allowing cases to go to the wayside.

Police would not say if Deese and Garcia had a hand in approving the handbook or what position they were demoted to.

In particular, the code "suspended - lack of personnel" was placed on reports for sexual assault and other violent crimes, something Finner said should have never happened.

At a news conference, Finner once again promises the suspended due to lack of staff code "should never be used and it will never be used again."

HPD releases data on the suspended incident reports, which shows this year alone, the code was used 45,063 times.

When looking at all 260,000 incident reports that were labeled suspended due to lack of personnel over the last decade, the Major Assaults/Family Violence Division had the most with 110,690 incident reports given that designation.

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Finner said just because there are 260,000 incident reports that were suspended due to lack of staff that doesn't mean there are that many cases impacted. That's because he said, for example, in one incident an individual filed nearly 100 reports.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott chimes in on the issue on Twitter, saying, "250,000 crime victims in Houston never even had their crime investigated. That includes thousands of sexual assault victims. The state must impose consequences for this neglect & provide solutions to prevent acts like this that allow criminals to go free."

March 8, 2024: Finner addresses antiquated records system

Finner releases a statement on social media, saying the city's "outdated" records management system will be replaced next year.

"The incident report code 'Suspended - Lack of Personnel' is hardwired into the system and removing it could cause it to crash," Finner said. "A policy has been put in place to stop the use of the code. We are noticing what appears to be occasional, inadvertent entries still using this code. As I also stated yesterday, we have an ongoing review system to flag any new entries for prompt correction."

March 13, 2024: Whitmire names 'independent review' panel members

Whitmire announced a five-person "Independent Review Committee" comprised of former councilwoman and state Rep. Ellen Cohen, current Texas Ranger Jeff Owles, city attorney Arturo Michel, Houston deputy inspector general overseeing police reform and accountability Christina Nowak, and reverend and Harris County Sheriff's Chaplain Leon Preston.

University of Houston-Clear Lake criminology professor Kimberly Dodson, who is not on the panel but has worked on independent panels looking at police agencies outside of Texas, said that she considers it small with just five people.

It's important for a citizens' review committee to be diverse, inclusive, and representative of the communities that they serve.
Criminology Professor Kimberly Dodson

Dodson said having a current law enforcement member is troubling because officers tend to know each other. She also said having the city attorney on the panel could be an issue because its position is to protect the city.

"I think it's important for a citizens' review committee to be diverse, inclusive, and representative of the communities that they serve to ensure there's a broad range of perspectives and experiences taken into account," Dodson said.

Mayor Whitmire says he'll be keeping a close eye on the investigation into more than a quarter million suspended incident reports by HPD.

March 15, 2024: Woman assaulted while sleeping among HPD cases suspended due to staff

13 Investigates obtained copies of sexual assault and other incident reports HPD marked as suspended due to lack of personnel.

In one report, a 35-year-old woman alleges someone entered her apartment, and she woke up to that person "kissing her buttocks," according to an HPD report.

That case happened in 2018 and wasn't followed up due to a lack of personnel.

In another report we obtained, a 33-year-old complained to police that he was "sexually assaulted by the (suspect) who is a friend of a friend."

It appears the suspect is someone the victim knew and could identify and lead police to if they had investigated, but it was assigned the lack of personnel code.

March 19, 2024: HPD union asks chief to recuse himself

The Houston Police Officers' Union sent a letter to Mayor Whitmire asking that Chief Finner not have any part in the investigation.

They are requesting the investigation be transferred to the Office of Inspector General or another department not affiliated with HPD, and that "Chief Finner be recused from any involvement in the investigative findings or outcome in the case."

"Chief Finner is both a key witness in this matter and an individual with an inherent self-interest in the outcome of the investigation, as are the other individuals who are former members of his Senior Executive Command Staff," according to the letter. "Chief Finner, by virtue of his position as head of the Houston Police Department, is currently supervising the IAD investigation and will ultimately serve as the final decision-maker regarding its findings and outcomes. By any measure, in any profession, this represents a substantial conflict of interest that undermines the fairness and integrity of the investigation."

The Houston Police Officers' Union is requesting that Chief Troy Finner not be involved in the investigation into the department's suspended cases.

March 20, 2024: New HPD assistant chiefs

Finner confirms Commander Adrian Rodriguez and Commander Alvaro Guzman Jr. will be promoted to assistant chiefs.

Any victims whose contact information has changed since the time of their report can call (713) 308-1180 or email specialvictimsreport@houstonpolice.org.

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