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Calls for accountability intensify after Houston police chief retires amid scandal over dropped cases

Calls for accountability intensify after Houston police chief retires amid scandal over dropped cases

For months, a police accountability group in Houston demanded that Police Chief Troy Finner resign after he revealed that thousands of cases, including those involving serious offenses such as sexual assault, were dropped over the years due to a lack of personnel.

On Wednesday, Mayor John Whitmire announced that Finner was retiring effective immediately — a move that stunned even his fiercest critics.

“I was relieved. The buck stopped with him,” said Hai Bui, founder of the activist group We the People Organize. “We’re very happy that the chief did the right thing.”

But community activists say Finner’s sudden departure, which caps a three-year tenure as police chief in the nation’s fourth-largest city, does not put to rest concerns over those dropped cases. Now, groups are calling for continued accountability.

Troy Finner speaks to the media (Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images file)

Troy Finner speaks to the media (Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images file)

“Today, more than ever, we have to make sure we’re standing up for survivors, ensuring that this kind of thing does not happen again,” said Sonia Corrales, the deputy CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, which offers an emergency shelter, a hotline and programs for people involved in sexual assault and domestic violence cases.

Whitmire, who took office this year, said the scandal engulfing the department had become “such a distraction” that he accepted Finner’s decision to retire after a 34-year career. Two assistant chiefs were demoted and a third resigned in connection with an internal investigation, Finner had said in April.

“Chief Finner was spending so much time dealing with the press, dealing with the department,” Whitmire told reporters in announcing his retirement, “it was affecting operations at HPD. That’s the bottom line.”

The ‘final straw’

While Finner was promoted to police chief in April 2021, the cases in question stretch back to 2016, when a code — “suspended: lack of personnel,” or “SL” — was used to dismiss incident reports.

Finner revealed in February that he learned of the SL code in November 2021 and told officers at the time to stop using it. He said he discovered in February said that it was still being applied to sexual assault cases.

The code had continued to appear in police policies approved as recently as December 2023, the Houston Chronicle reported in February.

Finner launched an internal review, which found that about 264,000 incident reports were suspended since 2016 because of staffing challenges, representing about 10% of all incident reports in the past eight years. While about half of those suspended incident reports were linked to property and financial crimes, the others included allegations of crimes against people. Finner had said about 4,000 of those were reports related to adult sex crimes. He cautioned that some of those incidents were duplicates or mislabeled.

Last month, Finner said the department was still combing through the reports that were filed under the “SL” code to determine whether they were properly investigated. Overall, he said, more than a third of the reports had been looked at and charges were brought against 27 suspects, mostly for misdemeanors but also for violent crimes. In the cases of sexual assault, officers were attempting to contact all the people who had filed reports, and they scheduled about 400 follow-up interviews.

On Tuesday, Finner faced renewed scrutiny when local media reported that he was made aware about the use of the “SL” code on a 2018 email chain, contradicting his February statement that he had learned about it in 2021. Finner, then an executive assistant chief, was informed of a road rage case using that code, and he responded in an email to a police commander that “this is unacceptable, look into it and follow up with me.”

The existence of the prior email cast doubt on Finner’s timeline. He could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Finner posted on X prior to retiring that he “never set out to mislead anyone,” but the email hadn’t stood out to him then because he was unaware of how the phrase was being used internally.

Still, Whitmire told reporters on Wednesday, the email was the “final straw.”

‘Push the reset button’

Finner’s exit is only the beginning of efforts to address the Houston Police Department’s ongoing troubles, observers say.

A core problem remains staffing for a police force that has seen a decline in officers over the years, even as the city’s population has grown to more than 2.3 million people. Last November, the department said it had about 5,165 officers, 81 fewer than it did in 2016, Houston Landing reported.

Finner in March said the city still had under 5,200 officers and told reporters he wanted “an additional 2,000 officers to properly patrol our streets and conduct investigations in this city.”

But Ray Hunt, the executive director of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said Houston is not alone as its struggles to retain and hire people into a profession that is increasingly scrutinized.

“You’re one call away from getting shot and killed,” Hunt said, “and everything you do and say is on body camera.”

But that’s not to say the Houston Police Department shouldn’t be doing its job to fully investigate cases, he said, particularly those that involve violent crimes and threats to public safety.

“Whoever our new leader is will have to explain that we’re never going to be able to investigate every call,” Hunt said, “but every crime against a person is going to be responded to — every sexual assault, homicide and robbery must be.”

With department morale suffering under the latest events, he added, “I’m hoping that we can push the reset button.”

But Bui said community activists like himself want to see more transparency from the police department as it seeks to rebuild public trust, including how federal grant money awarded to the city for hiring additional officers has been spent.

A Houston Police Department spokesman said Friday that a grant of more than $6 million received last November from the Justice Department will be used to finance classes this September and November with each class consisting of 25 recruits.

But Bui questions if such grant money can be properly tracked and managed.

“The community deserves clarity on how every dollar has been spent and how many officers have been hired, particularly in areas critical to public safety,” he said.

Ultimately, the fallout from the controversy underscores a responsibility to ensure victims and survivors of crimes are delivered justice, and no one agency’s inaction hinders that, said Corrales, of the Houston Area Women’s Center.

She said there are instances of sexual assault survivors, including those whose incidents were dropped for lack of staffing, now being connected with her organization, and that advocates are being brought into the process in a “multidisciplinary effort” so that no person is left wondering what happened in their case.

“We’ve made significant improvements, and clearly we need to keep working at it,” Corrales said, “but these entities can’t do it by themselves.”

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