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As Valerie Hill tried to physically stop her landlord’s son from entering an occupied bathroom at her Kashmere Gardens group home, the 30-year-old man wheeled around and punched her in the chest.

Hill called 911 to report the assault and Houston Police Department officers quickly arrived at the scene, but handcuffs never came out. Instead, Hill overheard the officers talk about taking the man, who she said has a documented history of mental illness, to a nearby restaurant to cool off.

Seven months after the May 2023, assault, Houston police classified the incident as “suspended – lack of personnel,” an internal label placed on tens of thousands of incidents over the past decade. The classification perplexed Hill, who felt the matter had been long settled.

“I don’t want to press charges anymore,” Hill said earlier this month. “I feel sorry for the guy.”

Since disclosing in February that the department had classified about 264,000 incidents as “suspended – lack of personnel,” triggering an internal investigation and audit that has clouded Mayor John Whitmire’s first few months in office, HPD officials have provided limited information about how it handled cases like Hill’s assault.

Did police truly fail to investigate known leads and arrest suspects? Did officers follow all available leads before giving up when they hit a natural dead-end? Did officers improperly classify numerous cases as suspended?

Based on two dozen interviews the Abdelraoufsinno conducted with crime victims over the past few weeks, the answer appears to be: all of the above.

In neighborhoods spanning the city, several crime victims whose cases were classified as “suspended” told the Landing they were frustrated with police not pursuing threads that could lead to arrests of suspects in assault, burglary and property damage cases. Some victims said they felt they gave police more than enough information to identify a culprit.

But most victims said police pursued all known leads, arrested a suspect or dropped the investigation because they didn’t want to press charges — leaving them satisfied with HPD’s response.

The two dozen crime victims represent a fraction of the cases under review, but they offer a window into the lingering question of whether Houston police denied justice to crime victims across the city.

At a minimum, the interviews show some reports were partially investigated and perhaps mislabeled, suggesting officers and supervisors were unclear as to when they should use the code. The interviews also disprove Gov. Greg Abbott’s unsubstantiated assertion that “250,000 crime victims in Houston never even had their crime investigated.”

Dozens of HPD officials have been reviewing the 260,000-plus incident reports since late February, examining whether officers failed to follow known leads in violation of agency policy. They are prioritizing sexual assaults and other violent felonies. Property crimes and other nonviolent offenses make up the large majority of cases.

To date, HPD Chief Troy Finner has said at least some cases should have received more attention before they were suspended, though he’s released few numbers detailing the extent of those findings.

“As we work through, you may find some good news and you may find some more bad news,” Finner said. “But the fact is, I made a promise to everyone that we’re going to work through each and every one of those incident reports, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Vexed crime victims

To better understand the circumstances surrounding some of the 260,000 incidents, the Landing visited more than 150 addresses associated with cases labeled last year as “suspended – lack of personnel.” The visits produced interviews with crime victims whose stories of frustration and satisfaction with HPD varied widely.

Some victims felt HPD had failed to make a reasonable effort to investigate their cases.

Aurelia Hunter, whose daughter was the target of a drive-by shooting outside her South Union home last March, said she’s angered by police not arresting the suspects. Hunter said her daughter knows the girls behind the shooting and provided their names to investigators.

“The shooting was streamed live,” said Hunter, whose daughter was not hit by gunfire.

In Sunnyside, Lafayette Davis said two men tried to steal his car by hitching it to a tow truck while he slept last August. When Davis woke up and confronted the men, one punched him in the face, he said. Davis followed the men on foot as they fled to a convenience store, where one of the assailants hit him in the face with a bottle.

Davis said officers took down his information the next day, and he gave them Ring camera footage of the attempted car theft. But several months later, Davis doesn’t know the status of the case. He’s unsure if officers went to the convenience store to see if there was video of the encounter.

“I never heard from police after the report was taken,” he said.

A lack of follow-up also bothers Juan DeLeon, who said his family’s Kashmere Gardens property was burglarized twice in as many days last August. Unknown men took gardening tools from his backyard, DeLeon said. Houston police took several hours to respond both times.

“Generally, when we call police here, they don't care,” DeLeon said.

Finner has repeatedly said his staff must prioritize violent crime because the department does not have enough officers to investigate every alleged crime. HPD Executive Assistant Chief Ban Tien said he often tells officers investigating low-level property crimes to explain to residents that they might struggle to identify culprits.

“If there are no witnesses or camera footage, what’s their expectation that officers will be able to solve the case?” Tien said. “Half the complainants typically say ‘Yes, you should investigate.’ The other half will say, ‘Oh yeah, given your staffing levels, it’s not realistic for me to expect you to solve the case.’ Still, we owe it to everyone to thoroughly review their cases.”

‘Don’t worry about it anymore’

Other crime victims felt HPD officers did all they could, considering the circumstances of their case.

Sunnyside resident Charles Lyons expressed bemusement when informed police classified a case involving him as “suspended.”

On an April afternoon last year, Lyons got into a fight with his then-housemate. While Lyons said his housemate threw the first punch, the man called police and blamed Lyons for the fight. Responding officers detained Lyons, but they ultimately released him and didn’t pursue the case further.

“The guy has called police multiple times. This wasn’t the first time,” Lyons said.

A Houston Police Department spokesperson said the assault report was misclassified as “suspended,” noting that neither Lyons nor the housemate wanted to press charges.

John Ross, an East Little York/Homestead resident, also wasn’t aware that police had misclassified his report of a stolen firearm as “suspended.” Johnson said he called police in February 2023 after a firearm went missing following a cable repairman’s visit.

Earlier this year, Ross called back to tell police that he had found the 380 caliber pistol on the kitchen counter. Ross said his wife has dementia and could have moved it.

“When I found the gun (the case) should have been over,” he said.

I don't worry about it anymore. The officers were very helpful and gave me a card with a case number to hold on to.”

For Kashmere Gardens resident Lisa DeBlanc, it was strange to find out police had classified her report as “suspended.” DeBlanc said she left her purse on a chair when she got up to dance at a Phil & Derek’s restaurant in Midtown in October, only to discover once she got home that a firearm had been taken from it.

Sheila Steadman also had her gun stolen by thieves who broke into her unoccupied Kashmere Gardens home in August. Steadman said she no longer thinks about the case, adding police likely had more important things to look into.

“I don’t worry about it anymore,” she said. “The officers were very helpful and gave me a card with a case number to hold on to.”

An HPD spokesperson, citing the number of requests related to the “suspended” incidents, said the department could not respond to questions about its handling of each case detailed by victims who spoke with the Landing.

HPD review of suspended cases

Finner said earlier this month that police had reviewed 82,000 cases with the “suspended – lack of personnel” classification.

As of April 11, almost all of the suspended adult sexual assault reports had been reviewed. Finner said of those reviewed, more than three-quarters are considered inactive with no workable leads. He said the cases can be reopened if HPD receives additional evidence.

About 2,600 investigations were rightfully suspended, but officers used the wrong code, HPD officials said. The department allows officers to suspend cases when an arrest is made, or when a supervisor determines there are no more workable leads and there’s not enough information to continue an investigation. Tien said the department needs to improve its case classification process so as to minimize human error.

While HPD officials have released some preliminary information about their findings, it’s often been incomplete or short on specifics about the impact on victims.

For example, HPD officials said earlier this month that they have reviewed almost all of the roughly 4,000 adult sexual assault reports classified as “suspended – lack of personnel.” The audit showed nearly 100 cases in which DNA taken from sexual assault kits matched DNA in a database of known offenders, HPD officials said. 

However, HPD leaders didn’t clarify whether local forensics officials had previously notified detectives of the DNA matches in those cases, or whether the matches were found as part of the “suspended” cases review. HPD officials also said about half of those cases had already resulted in an arrest, or involved a complainant who couldn’t be found or didn’t want to cooperate with police.

The Houston Area Women’s Center said in a February statement that the “suspended” adult sexual assault reports were indicative of “system failure in the fourth-largest city in the nation.”

“For a survivor to find the courage to come forward and report their attack, and then to wait and watch as their case gets suspended can add immeasurable trauma,” the sexual assault resource center said.

Too little, too late?

Finner, who became chief in April 2021, has said that he first learned his officers were using the designation in November 2021 and directed them to stop. However, Finner said he learned in early February that officers were still using the classification, leading him to order an immediate review of reports.

Finner has not commented on a letter ABC13 obtained earlier this month in which an unidentified sergeant described how the classification was created in 2016 as a way to “capture the number of cases with workable leads we were unable to assign due to workforce shortages.”

“With the use of that data, our intent was to justify additional investigators and provide estimates on the number of cleared offenses required to improve operational clearance rates,” the sergeant wrote.

Finner said an internal affairs investigation into who created the code and why they created it should be completed by the end of April.

Whitmire has formed an independent review panel tasked with looking over HPD’s shoulder. Its directives include analyzing HPD data to identify trends and patterns in the “suspended” reports; reviewing department policies and practices that led to use of the code; and reviewing whether law enforcement actions were deficient.

Whitmire has also tasked the panel with issuing a final report proposing actions that “will ensure every incident report that is received by HPD is properly reviewed, investigated and properly addressed,” according to a memorandum addressed to Houston City Council.

But for some, that’s too little, too late.

Michael Johnson said two HPD officers recently came by his house to ask if he still wanted to pursue an assault charge against an unknown woman who he said pulled a gun on him in August. Johnson said yes, only to later throw the report number they gave him in the trash, angered by the amount of time that had passed.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.

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Monroe Trombly is a public safety reporter at the Abdelraoufsinno. Monroe comes to Texas from Ohio. He most recently worked at the Columbus Dispatch, where he covered breaking and trending news. Before...