Over 250K Cases Dropped by Houston Police over Lack of Staffing

Feb. 28, 2024
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had called for the end of the practice of suspending cases because of a lack of staffing, and he says detectives would be calling on over 4,000 suspended cases.

Amid revelations that the Houston Police Department may have suspended more than 250,000 criminal investigations due to lack of manpower in recent years, HPD Chief Troy Finner has repeatedly stated he never signed off on that practice and that he told employees to stop using the code years ago.

But the short-staff case closures were written into the department's official policies as recently as December, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle.

The documents, which come from the internal manual for the department's major assault unit, or MAU, discuss various ways that employees can suspend a criminal investigation and the codes they can use to document it. They appear to allow the use of the code "SL," which means "Suspended — Lack of Personnel," for both felony and misdemeanor cases.

When it comes to certain felony cases, "if there are insufficient personnel to conduct an investigation at that time, the MAU sergeant may suspend the case for lack of personnel," the documents say, adding that the sergeant "should periodically review any such cases to determine when they may be assigned for investigation."

As for less serious crimes, the documents state that "a misdemeanor case which has been suspended for lack of personnel may be assigned for investigation if the division is contacted by the complainant seeking to press charges."

The Chronicle obtained the documents from Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, who sent the newspaper screenshots of portions of the manual. Griffith said he did not have access to the entire manual but that it was last updated on December 1, 2023, which means someone in the department's leadership would have recently approved its contents.

"Somebody within that chain of command has to brief them to say, hey, this is what's going on" when the manual is updated, Griffith said.

Kese Smith, a spokesman for the department, said that the manual was "created on a divisional level and approved by the assistant chief over that division," not by Finner. He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation into the matter.

Finner has called the case suspensions unacceptable, as has Mayor John Whitmire.

"That code was put into effect in 2016. It will not be used again in my administration," Finner said in a news conference last week. "It was unacceptable then. It's unacceptable now."

The HPD budget is set to break $1 billion this year, yet as of April 2023, the department had 342 fewer full-time officers than it had two decades years ago. Meanwhile, response times are the slowest they've been in decades, a Chronicle investigation found.

Police departments across the country have struggled with a lack of personnel, but it's not common practice to suspend cases simply for that reason.

The fact that such suspensions have been going on in Houston for years, which Finner revealed earlier this month, has roiled the Houston Police Department and the city.

"Our patrol officers and specialized units work tirelessly to protect and serve our community," said Vice Mayor Amy Peck. "To find out that their work is being undermined by leadership who authorized this suspension code to be used is disrespectful to their job and to all Houstonians. I am truly concerned for the victims who were not treated with the respect they deserve."

Last week, Finner said detectives would be making calls on more than 4,000 suspended cases within the sex crimes division. Yesterday, he announced the issue went far beyond that division, affecting as many as 10% of all criminal cases filed with the department since 2016.

It's not clear how the department will follow up on such a large number of suspended cases, some of which are almost a decade old. Finner has encouraged sex assault victims who have changed their address since filing reports as far back as 2016 to contact investigators at [email protected] or call the special victims division at 713-308-1180.


(c)2024 the Houston Chronicle

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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