HPD Chief Troy Finner: Pandemic suspension of social services main reason for Houston's crime increase
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner at the mayor’s announcement of a slate new police reforms, on April 29, 2021. Photo by Lucio Vasquez/Houston Public Media.

A suspension of social services during the COVID-19 pandemic and a court system backlog stretching back to Hurricane Harvey have contributed to a massive increase in violent crime, Houston police chief Troy Finner said Monday.

The chief pointed to the city’s 42% increase in homicides and aggravated assaults in 2021 compared to 2020, with at least 220 reported homicides since the beginning of the year.

That comes off of a 2020 increase in crime, with the year ending off with 400 reported homicides — the highest in more than 10 years.

“Just as other major cities, we are experiencing an increase in homicides and aggravated assaults involving handguns,” Finner said. “Pretty alarming.”

Finner made the comments on Monday morning’s episode of Houston Matters, where he discussed a range of issues impacting criminal justice in Houston with host Craig Cohen.

When asked for the reason behind the increase, the chief pointed to a months-long delay in jury trials when Harvey hit the region, and another suspension of jury trials last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finner also pointed to the lack of social services as another reason for the increase in crime, but added that HPD is in the process of hiring additional clinicians and councilors, while also training officers to work with clinicians in a crisis intervention response team in order to respond to calls involving individuals in a mental health crisis.

He added that mobile crisis outreach teams would respond to calls without an officer when there is no potential for violence.

“We can no longer arrest, in large numbers, nonviolent individuals who need treatment and have suffered from mental illness,” Finner said. “We have to get people hired, and trained, and in the seats, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.”

Those services were included in Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge to devote $25 million of the city’s budget to implement crisis intervention policies, Finner said. The focus on crisis intervention was among a slew of police reforms enacted by the mayor in April.

The reforms also include an overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a complete ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, and a new body camera policy, which requires HPD to release video of officer shootings or killings within 30 days.

The new body camera policy was tested for the first time earlier this month, when HPD released body camera footage 10 days after officers killed a man during an early morning traffic stop.

Finner added that two more police shootings occurred over the weekend, and that the department was working on releasing body camera footage from those incidents soon.

Asked about “broken window theory” — which links minor crimes impacting quality of life issues to larger crime trends — Finner said he agreed broadly with the concept, and that it was important to identify neighborhoods that need access to “viable employment, good education, (and) support systems.”

The chief also touched on the recently passed permitless carry law, which goes into effect on Sept. 1, saying he didn’t think the new legislation would help law enforcement.

That bill, House Bill 1927, eliminates a requirement to obtain a license to legally carry handguns.

“If you have to get (a) drivers license to drive a car…shouldn’t you be able to at least get a permit where you get some type of training?,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good thing for major cities.”

The Houston Matters interview comes after Finner hosted a summit last week that convened local, state, and federal law enforcement offices to discuss the area’s rise in violent crime.

Finner said many law enforcement officials expressed frustration with the court system due to jails being at max capacity, as well as what he said was a problem in alleged repeat offenders being released after arrest.

A caller asked the chief if HPD would begin cracking down on undocumented immigrants to combat an increase in violent crime. But Finner rejected the idea, and explained that a majority of crime committed within city limits was actually not carried out by immigrants.

Finner then emphasized the importance of trust between the undocumented community and HPD.

“I’m not gonna just single out a group of people,” he said. “We all need to work together… and not (single) out groups of individuals when it’s really not justified.”