Houston mayor says police chief is out amid probe into thousands of dropped cases

Troy Finner retires from Houston police chief

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s mayor has replaced the city’s police chief, saying Wednesday it was the best thing for a law enforcement agency that’s still under intense scrutiny over why hundreds of thousands of cases were never investigated, including more than 4,000 sexual assault allegations.

Mayor John Whitmire said he did not push out former Police Chief Troy Finner but accepted his retirement as the police department needed to move forward under new leadership.

During a news conference, Whitmire said the ongoing investigation and questions of what Finner knew and when were having a cumulative impact “on the morale in the department, the focus of the officers and the confidence that Houstonians need to have in their police department.”

Whitmire, who took office in January, had expressed confidence in Finner after the chief revealed in February that more than 264,000 incident reports in the past eight years were never submitted for investigation as officers assigned them an internal code that cited a lack of available personnel.

Finner had said he ordered his command staff in a November 2021 meeting to stop using it after learning of its existence. Despite this, he said, he learned on Feb. 7 of this year that it was still being used to dismiss a significant number of adult sexual assault cases.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner speaks to the media during a news conference, Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the police department’s headquarters about the more than 264,000 cases, including more than 4,000 dealing with sexual assault, that were dropped over the past eight years due do a lack of personnel. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Whitmire’s confidence in Finner seemed to quickly end this week after Houston television stations reported Tuesday that Finner had been informed about the dismissed incident reports in a 2018 email.

Whitmire called the discovery of the email the “final straw.”

“The bottom line is the department is being distracted due to issues with the investigation … from its primary mission of fighting crime,” Whitmire told city council members. He appointed assistant Chief Larry Satterwhite as acting chief.

In a late Wednesday afternoon post on the social platform X, Finner did not address his sudden retirement. He called the last few months of his career “the most challenging” and “painful” because “some victims of violent crime did not receive the quality care and service they deserved.”

“But, it was beneficial because we implemented measures to ensure this never happens again,” Finner said on the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Our department and our profession will be better because of it.”

During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Satterwhite was asked by reporters about when he first learned that cases were being dismissed because of a lack of personnel.

Satterwhite, who has been with the police department for 34 years, said he briefly attended the November 2021 meeting where Finner told his command staff to stop using the code but left as he was focused on other duties. Satterwhite said that sometime in late 2023 or earlier this year, he might have heard something about the code related to a specific case but it wasn’t until later that he learned of the magnitude of the problem.

“We as an agency … on this one failed,” Satterwhite said.

Satterwhite said becoming acting chief has been difficult under these circumstance as he and Finner are longtime friends and attended the police academy together.

“I’m going to do my best to make it better and then we shall see,” Satterwhite said.

Finner had apologized in March about the use of the internal code to dismiss the incident reports and had said he would be transparent and truthful in the ongoing investigation.

Regarding the 2018 email made public this week, Finner posted a statement on X saying he did not remember that email until he was shown a copy of it on Tuesday.

“Even though the phrase ‘suspended lack of personnel’ was included in the 2018 email, there was nothing that alerted me to its existence as a code or how it was applied within the department,” Finner wrote.

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Several city council members on Wednesday expressed gratitude for Finner, who joined the Houston police department in 1990 and became chief in 2021. City Councilor Carolyn Evans-Shabazz said she misses him already.

“His efforts have significantly contributed to our community’s safety and wellbeing,” Evans-Shabazz said.

After Finner made public the department’s use of the internal code to dismiss these cases, Whitmire launched a review by an independent panel. Whitmire said he hoped the panel could provide a public update next week.

The Houston Area Women’s Center, Houston’s largest non-profit supporting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, declined to comment Wednesday on Finner’s retirement. But in a social media post in February, it said sexual assault survivors “pay a high price” when investigations aren’t clearly resolved.

Police departments around the country are facing an urgent staffing crisis as many younger officers resign and older officers retire, according to an August report by the Police Executive Research Forum. Applications to fill vacancies plummeted amid a national reckoning over how police respond to minorities.

An April 27 report by the same Washington-based think tank found more encouraging numbers.

“Small and medium agencies now have more sworn officers than they had in January 2020,” according to the forum’s report. “In large agencies, sworn staffing slightly increased during 2023, but it is still more than 5% below where it was in January 2020.”

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