By Mike Tolson and James Pinkerton
May 31, 2014
When asked how the police department of one of the nation’s largest cities could simply lose track of almost two dozen homicide cases, its chief pointed first to a bad detective and those supervising him. Then he turned to outdated computer systems, the failure of which left everyone in that division operating in the dark.
“How big a role was the computer breakdown in the homicide cases?” said HPD Chief Charles McClelland. “It was a big part, because just like any of us, we rely on our technology.”
Eight Houston Police Department detectives have been disciplined for failing to properly investigate more than two-dozen homicide cases spanning almost a decade. The victims were as young as 11 months old. They were nearly all black or Hispanic. They were walking along the sidewalk or just answering their door when they were killed.
Built in the 1980s, HPD’s main records management system keeps all the data that pours into a police department, from routine traffic tickets to arrest records. Using the sort of mainframe platform standard in its day, the system was considered obsolete long before the lapse involving Sgt. Ryan Chandler became known in 2013. A replacement for it was coming, including software to track ongoing investigations, but the process of acquiring it had been ongoing for years.
HPD executives acquired special software for the homicide division in the late 1990s to help detectives and supervisors track the progress of ongoing investigations. But at some point in the following decade – it’s unclear exactly when – that separate “case management” system failed. That meant that Chandler’s lack of attention to cases assigned to him was harder to spot.
Ed Claughton, a former police lieutenant who now works as a consultant for police agencies across the country, said that in the specialized world of police information technology, technical shortcomings and overall obsolescence carries a risk greater than mere inconvenience.
“Information is the lifeblood of the agency – if it’s mismanaged in any way, you’re going to experience a catastrophe eventually,” Claughton said. “Clearly here you have a management failure, a leadership failure, a performance failure on the part of the officers, and a failure of a records system.”
Claughton said that antiquated computer systems are not uncommon in urban police departments because of the cost of buying new ones. But he was surprised by the particular HPD division most affected.
“This is the most important type of crime,” he said. “We are talking about homicide. Where is the department’s priority?”
To not have some sort of case tracking system in place is to invite disaster, experts say.
“This is a horrible outcome,” said police consultant and technology expert Paul Wormeli, who has worked with HPD. “It shows why technology has to be updated. You have to have a computer system that is adequate and notifies supervisors when cases are not being handled.”
A new records management system at HPD is expected to roll out next month. Its arrival is one reason McClelland promises never to have cases go unworked and forgotten again.