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Houston police chief won't say if thousands of dropped cases reveals bigger problems within agency

HOUSTON — (AP) — Houston's police chief on Tuesday declined to say whether recent revelations that more than 264,000 cases filed with Houston police in the past eight years were dropped speak to broader problems within his agency that need to be fixed.

During a nearly two-hour meeting at police headquarters in downtown Houston with reporters and local community leaders, Chief Troy Finner acknowledged his department has lost some trust with the public because of the ongoing scandal. In February, 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.

But Finner said he wasn't ready to declare that the mishandling of these incident reports was an example of bigger cultural problems within the police department and how officers perform their duties. After a deadly drug raid in 2019, an audit found multiple problems with the Houston police narcotics unit behind the raid, including a lack of supervision and officers making hundreds of errors in cases.

“It’s ugly. It don’t feel good. It’s a part of that process that we brought upon ourselves,” Finner said during the meeting, which reporters were not allowed to record.

Finner said there would be accountability but declined to provide more details on this, citing an internal affairs investigation set to be completed by the end of April.

Last month, Mayor John Whitmire announced the creation of an independent panel to review police handling of the dropped cases.

Two assistant chiefs have already been demoted over their roles in the matter.

The police department has so far reviewed 67,533 of the 264,000 incident reports, Finner said Tuesday.

The department’s top priority has been reaching out to people who filed more than 4,000 sexual assault reports that were suspended, with 3,883 having been reviewed as of Tuesday, Finner said.

The internal code, part of the department’s record management system, was created in 2016, years before Finner became chief in April 2021.

Finner said he first found out officers were using the code during a meeting on Nov. 4, 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.

Finner suggested he and others in his department might have failed to follow up on whether the internal code was no longer being used because they were dealing with various issues, including a dramatic spike in crime during the pandemic, a shortage of officers and the deaths of 10 people at the Astroworld music festival, which happened a day after the meeting where he told his staff to stop using the code.

“I don’t make any excuses. When you are the chief, you are responsible,” Finner said.

One of the community activists who attended Tuesday’s meeting, Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL, a Houston-based civil rights group, said there needs to be full transparency with the ongoing investigation and with any punishment so that people don’t think “this is business as usual.”

“We just want to know the facts about what happened and how we’re going to keep it from happening again,” Espinosa said.

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