13 Investigates: New HPD police chief inherits same old staffing problem

Wednesday, May 8, 2024
New HPD police chief inherits same old staffing problem
Houston Mayor John Whitmire wants new acting Police Chief Larry Satterwhite to focus on recruiting and retaining officers, as well as boosting morale.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston's new acting police chief, Larry Satterwhite, said he's still trying to get up to speed on the internal investigation into an incident code that allowed hundreds of thousands of cases to be sidelined.

But, he said that coming from an operational background means he already has ideas for tackling this challenge.

Satterwhite replaces former HPD Chief Troy Finner, who left the department on Tuesday.

"In recent weeks, talking to officers, up and down ranks, they were concerned, so talking to Chief Finner and what the options were, he retired. I accepted it," Houston Mayor John Whitmire said. "We kept the dialogue going to the point that he retired. He's a professional. He's a good man. He has family. Chief Finner chose to retire, I accepted, but it was not easy."

Whitmire said HPD was "being overwhelmed by the discussion of new information."

The new information includes an email 13 Investigates obtained on Monday that calls into question when Finner first learned about the "Suspended-Lack of Personnel" code that sidelined cases with workable leads.

The July 20, 2018, email was addressed to several high-ranking HPD leaders, including then-Chief Art Acevedo and Finner, who was an executive assistant chief back then.

It mentions a specific road rage case marked as "Suspended-Lack of Personnel" and details that it was labeled that way, even though a witness ID'ed a suspect.

Finner responds to the email, saying, "This is unacceptable, look into it and follow up with me."

The email does not flag issues with the suspended code or address how often it is used.

Still, Whitmire said that email was the "final straw."

"It made me sick when I saw the last email," he said.

Hours before his retirement was announced, Finner said he didn't remember that email.

Art Acevedo, who was also copied on that email and was police chief when it was sent in 2018, said he never heard about the "Suspended - Lack of Personnel" code either.

'At the end of the day, that email was about one crash and our failure to investigate it. It did not mention any code, which is why I did not respond to that email," Acevedo said in a phone interview with 13 Investigates' Kevin Ozebek. "I read every email, and our chief of staff ... actually did a good review of the incident, and then Troy Finner showed what I know he does. He was engaged, and he weighed in and made his expectations very clear, so I'm not sure why John Whitmire would say that, but absolutely, if that's his smoking gun, he needs to work on his definitional smoking gun."

On Tuesday afternoon, Finner said in a statement that working for HPD during a 34-year career was both challenging and rewarding.

The full statement read:

"The last few months of my career were, perhaps, the most challenging yet most rewarding. It was painful because some victims of violent crime did not receive the quality of care and service they deserved. But, it was also beneficial because we implemented measures to ensure this never happens again. Our department and our profession will be better because of it," he said. "Most importantly, I would like to thank God for guiding my steps and keeping me safe throughout my career. I would also like to thank my family and close friends for their unwavering support. It was the highest honor to serve as your Chief for three years in this great department and city. Whatever the future holds for me, I will continue to serve others."

As he takes over HPD, acting Chief Satterwhite said he is trying to get up to speed on the internal investigation into suspending cases due to a lack of personnel.

He also said he doesn't really remember when he first learned about the internal code.

When he first announced news of suspended cases, Finner said he learned about the code in November 2021 and instructed staff to stop using it. However, he later learned on Feb. 7 that it had been used to suspend thousands of adult sex crime cases dating back to 2016.

"I don't even think on Feb. 7, I knew the magnitude of it," Satterwhite said. "That's the problem here is that I'm trying to struggle on exactly when and what it was I might have heard or not and so - I don't want it to sound like - I just don't know."

Satterwhite, a 34-year veteran with HPD, admits "to do this with violent crimes is still hard for me to wrap my head around."

"I come from a very strong operational environment, and I think I have some ideas that I think will be very helpful and I think they'll be much more effective," Satterwhite said. "It's a challenge because of our lack of people, but I think making some moves will hopefully bring a little bit more effectiveness of getting investigators a little bit closer to the fields. I'm a decentralized guy. I'll just tell you right now, my philosophy is more of a flat organization where I have as many officers and detectives out there in the field as possible, working with the patrol officers, working with everybody to get things done. It's going to be a challenge. It takes time, but I'm just telling you, in doing this job as long as I have, I have some ideas that I think will work."

The code that allowed for incident reports to be suspended due to a lack of personnel is no longer being used by the department, but the personnel concerns behind that code remain.

HPD currently has 5,164 officers. For years, Finner has been lobbying the mayor for 2,000 more officers.

As Satterwhite takes over, he said he'll pick up where Finner left off.

"I would love to have 2000 more officers today. I think there's so much more we could do for the public if we had them," Satterwhite said.

A city spokesperson told us Whitmire wants the Satterwhite to focus on recruiting and retaining officers and boosting morale. The goal for next year is to have five cadet classes with at least 75 people in each class.

Adding more officers to HPD will cost tax-payer money, and city leaders are crafting a new budget that will be unveiled next week.

Whitmire said he hopes there will be fewer distractions under HPD's new top cop.

"You've got to have a police department that is back to crime fighting, response time, recruiting," Whitmire said. "You think recruiting hadn't been impacted by the activities that we're describing? I want people to get back to doing police work and get out of the press."

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

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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