Houston Mayor John Whitmire appointed five members to an Independent Review Committee on March 13 that will be charged with assessing the handling and resolution of more than 260,000 suspended incident reports by the Houston Police Department in the last several years.

What happened

In a news release March 13, Whitmire said he created the committee to ensure transparency, maintain public trust and prioritize the victims who reported the dismissed crimes.

“The Independent Review Committee members represent a cross-section of the experience, credibility and representation of individuals across the city of Houston,” Whitmire said. “I have asked them to go to work immediately to analyze the collected data to identify trends, patterns and discrepancies in the handling and closing [of] incident reports.”

Whitmire said the committee will verify the accuracy and completeness of the information obtained from HPD by comparing it to independent sources.

Committee members include:
  • Ellen Cohen: Former member of the Texas House of Representatives, former Houston City Council member and former president of the Houston Area Women’s Center
  • Jeff Owles: Texas Ranger with 21 years of service in law enforcement
  • Christina Nowak: Deputy inspector general of the Office of Policing Reform and Accountability for the city of Houston
  • Leon Preston: Longtime pastor of Yale Street Baptist Church and law enforcement chaplain for the Harris County Constables Office
  • Arturo Michel: City attorney for the city of Houston and former partner at Husch Blackwell LLP
Whitmire said the committee will report to the mayor’s office on any findings, proceedings or data regarding the suspended cases.

"The committee will be accountable to me, and ultimately to all Houstonians who deserve a police department they can trust and to be assured that when they report an incident, HPD will investigate it and not toss it aside because someone wrongly determined there was insufficient personnel to examine the details of an alleged crime," he said. "This should never have happened. Under my watch, with the help of the committee, we are putting a stop to it."

Taking a step back

Houston Police Department Chief Troy Finner revealed in late February that HPD dismissed 4,000 sexual assault cases and more than 260,000 investigations department-wide since 2016 due to a lack of personnel.

In a March 13 press conference, Whitmire said he hopes the committee will be able to unveil how the incidents remained in the dark for eight years.

“We’ve had four police chiefs while this code has been being used,” Whitmire said, referring to the “suspend for lack of personnel” code created in 2016 to suspend cases when there is insufficient staffing to investigate a case.

Whitmire said Finner ordered HPD to stop using the code in 2021. However, he said the advice may not have been fully followed.

“We all know HPD is understaffed; that’s been discussed publicly for years,” Whitmire said. “But man, this is the extreme that had to be corrected, and we're fixing to do it. It will never be used while I’m mayor.”

The action taken

Since the mayor’s office publicly acknowledged the suspended cases in a news release March 4, Whitmire has taken several steps toward investigating the affair.
  • March 6: Whitmire announced he will appoint an Independent Panel to review HPD’s suspended cases.
  • March 7: Whitmire and Finner provided an update on the internal review of incident reports.
  • March 10: Whitmire and Finner, along with Houston Area Women’s CEO Emilee Whitehurt, visited with HPD offices to see the ongoing efforts to provide trauma-informed services to victims of the suspended cases.
  • March 13: Members of the Independent Review Committee were announced.
“In terms of leadership, everyone is going to be held accountable,” Whitmire said. “Certainly the leadership in HPD. Certainly I will be held accountable, and that’s a good thing.”

Going forward

Ellen Cohen, chair of the Independent Review Committee, said the committee will host its first meeting March 20 to start setting goals and schedule dates to assemble.

Whitmire said the city doesn’t currently have a timeline on how long the investigation will take but is hoping to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible.