Three years into his tenure, Houston Police Department chief Troy Finner has resigned following a scandal that left more than 260,000 incident reports, dating back eight years, uninvestigated, due to a system management code that, he said, “never should have been used.”

The scandal traces its roots to 2016, when Houston officers began appending a “Suspended: lack of personnel” tag to some incident-report files. The officers had supposedly added that designation to flag cases for review as time and resources permitted, but in these cases, the officers apparently never followed up.

At first, Houston police thought that the tag-caused backlog was limited to 4,017 adult sexual-assault reports. Finner added 32 officers to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit to review the files and promised victims that “the Houston Police Department will correct this and there will be accountability.”

Days after the press conference on February 23 discussing the failure, the HPD announced that it would review “all divisions in the department found to be using the code.” Then, on February 26, the HPD made the startling admission that the actual number of suspended incidents was roughly 264,000—about 10 percent of the total incident reports filed with the department in the eight years since the system code went into effect. The Houston Forensic Science Center raised further alarm when it found that 96 of the backlogged sexual-assault kits matched DNA profiles in the Department’s DNA database. The whole episode serves as a timely reminder that while proper accountability systems are a powerful tool of effective governance, flawed ones create perverse incentives that can do a lot of damage.

When the public learned of the scandal, Finner claimed that he had discovered the department’s use of the code when he was appointed chief in 2021 and ordered the department to stop using it. Finner said that officers kept using it despite his command. More recently, however, a leaked email thread revealed some HPD staff, including then-police chief Art Acevedo and Finner, were notified of the issue in 2018. Finner not only received the 2018 email but deemed an officer’s use of the “lack of personnel” code “unacceptable.”

When news of the 2018 email broke, Finner released a statement claiming that he “had no recollection of” the message. Public pressure on the department continued to build, however, and Finner resigned on May 7.

The HPD is conducting an internal review to determine why Finner’s directive was ignored. Beyond the chief’s resignation and the demotion of two assistant police chiefs—the heads of the Criminal Investigations Command and the head of the Organizational Development Command—no HPD employees have yet been held publicly accountable. Houston mayor John Whitmire has launched an independent administrative panel to assist in reviewing cases and serve as a second set of eyes. He hopes that “appointing an independent panel will validate the investigation’s integrity.”

Elected leaders have failed to heed the results of such investigations in the past. Urban Reform, of which I am president, recently unearthed a video from 2014 of then-police chief Charles McClelland warning the Houston City Council of 20,000 cases that had gone uninvestigated because of lack of resources. Those failures didn’t prompt officials to bolster police staff, though: today, the department has just 2.2 officers per 1,000 residents. (In Chicago, a city that Houston may surpass as the nation’s third-largest over the next decade, the ratio is more than double that figure, at 4.7 officers per 1,000 residents.)

Whitmire is now five months into his first term after running a campaign centered on public safety and boosting the number of patrol officers. With Houston’s fiscal year 2025 budget cycle set to start on July 1, the city’s police department is in crisis. The mayor’s commitments will be tested—and revealed—by the decisions he makes in the coming months.

Photo: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images


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