Houston Police Department Chief Out as Uninvestigated Criminal Cases Scandal Broadens

Yi-Chin Lee /Houston Chronicle via AP

The nation's fourth-largest city has a big problem when it comes to conducting criminal investigations. It's getting worse.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner resigned last week. There is no way he could have remained in his position after the scandal of 260,000 incident reports labeled “Suspended — Lack of Personnel”, or SL were discovered. Two assistant chiefs have been demoted and one executive has resigned. The new mayor, John Whitmire, has a real disaster on his hands. Whitmire said that the “dumb person that came up with that code” is no longer at HPD. 


I don't care what the code is. I just want my city's police department to be properly staffed and solve the damn crimes. The shortage of personnel has been going on for years and only got worse during the Summer of Love in 2020 when defunding the police was all the rage. Protests turned into riots and police had targets on their backs. It was not as bad in Houston as it was in other cities but Houston didn't avoid the chaos. The then-mayor joined in the marches and openly supported the Marxist leaders of BLM who came and rallied in the city.

The failure is not just the fault of the police chief, though the buck stops with him, but the whole system has failed. 

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.  

“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.” 

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that HPD shelved investigations into 'minor' crimes because of a lack of staff. It's been going on for decades. There were burglary and theft cases that were suspended because there were no detectives free to run down leads. Imagine being a victim of one of those crimes and learning that there were leads in your case but no one had time to work them.


By 2014, HPD's planning office talked about creating the Suspended-Lack of Personnel code for violent crimes, too. The situation kept escalating and going downhill. 

The chief at that time said he wasn't a part of the discussion about the SL code. He said he would not have approved it. 

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. HPD brass wasn't required to sign off when the code was added to the department's computer system in 2016. No one was put in charge of ensuring the code was used consistently by investigators. Experienced leaders in the department who could have been put in charge of the implementation left HPD that year when a push for pension reform created mass retirements of the command staff.

The new system with the SL code was not set up to succeed from the beginning. It was doomed to failure because the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. 

A large portion of the cases were mislabeled. Tens of thousands of investigations were improperly dropped. Finner said those cases included some "egregious" crimes. 

Finner became police chief in 2021 after a 34-year career with HPD. 

The backlog of processing rape kits and forensic testing in assault cases is particularly disturbing. "In dozens of cases, forensic testing shows suspects who were allowed to walk free may have later struck again."

Houston residents deserve much better. 

In November 2021, Finner said he ordered his command staff to stop using the SL code. The day after that, the crisis of the Astroworld tragedy happened. The system remained in place.

So, what is next? Mayor Whitmire appointed Larry Satterwhite, formerly the executive assistant chief, as acting police chief while he begins the search for Finner’s replacement. Whitmire said, “It’s real premature to talk about the process of selection. I’m not ruling out an internal or external chief. I want someone that is a crime fighter that realizes and appreciates the diversity of our city and just wants to fix things.”

That would be good. I'm not sure what "appreciates diversity" has to do with investigating criminal cases, but let's hope he makes a solid decision soon. Whitmire ran on law and order. He's been in office since January. He has his work cut out for him.



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