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Houston police chief apologizes for department not investigating 264K cases due to staffing issues

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s police chief pledged on Thursday to restore public trust in his department following revelations that more than 264,000 cases, including over 4,000 involving sexual assault, were dropped in the past eight years due to a lack of personnel.

Last month Chief Troy Finner announced that hundreds of thousands of incident reports, including for sexual assaults and property crimes, were never submitted for investigation as officers assigned them an internal code that cited a lack of available personnel. The figure represents about 10% of the 2.8 million incident reports filed in the past eight years.

“I apologize to victims, their families, our citizens, for the use of the code for sexual assault incidents and other violent crimes against persons,” Finner said at a Thursday news conference. “This is not the trauma-informed, victim-centric services they deserve. Again, this code should have never been used and never will be used again.”

Finner's news conference took place a day after Mayor John Whitmire announced that he will appoint an independent panel to review police handling of the dropped cases, saying the public “wants answers and accountability.”

“How can something like that (the code) exist? … I’m shocked by it. It’s unacceptable,” Whitmire said.

The internal code, part of the department’s record management system, was created in 2016, years before Finner became chief in April 2021. It was used in the two administrations that preceded his.

Finner said he first found out that officers were using the code in November 2021 and gave an order for it to stop. But then he learned on Feb. 7 of this year that it was still being used to dismiss a significant number of adult sexual assault cases.

An internal affairs investigation is reviewing why the order to stop using the code was not followed and how the code's use first came about, Finner said.

Two assistant chiefs have already been demoted over their roles in the matter. Citing the ongoing investigation, Finner declined to comment on whether more personnel could face disciplinary action.

He said his department’s top priority has been reaching out to people who filed the more than 4,000 sexual assault reports that were suspended. At least 32 officers have been assigned to review those cases, contact people and conduct follow-up interviews.

More than 3,000 of those cases have been reviewed so far, and 133 victim interviews scheduled. Police have also been working to contact people who filed family violence incident reports, Finner said.

Also suspended were 109,000 reports filed with the major assault division and 91,000 in property and financial crimes. And 6,537 reports filed with the homicide division were dismissed, but most of those were related to claims of assaults and threats, Finner said.

Police departments around the country are facing an increasingly urgent staffing crisis, as many younger officers resign, older officers retire and applications to fill the vacancies plummet, according to an August report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank.

Houston is no exception: Finner said the department, which has about 5,200 officers, needs 2,000 more to be sufficiently staffed. Still, he added, that's not an excuse for the dismissal of hundreds of thousands of cases.

“What has happened since 2016 is not acceptable. HPD as a department owns it, and I am committed as chief to making sure that we fix it,” Finner said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70