Fort Worth

Fort Worth detective fired for mishandling cases involving children

Star-Telegram

A former Crimes Against Children detective has been fired over allegations that he bungled multiple investigations, including failing to file cases for prosecution and interview witnesses.

Dennis Hutchins was fired effective Tuesday.

“His actions resulted in the lack of arrest and prosecution of multiple offenders and justice for juvenile victims,” states his disciplinary letter, signed by Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald.

Hutchins, an almost 24-year veteran of the department, has appealed.

Terry Daffron, Hutchins’ attorney, says the department rushed through the investigation and never allowed Hutchins an opportunity to even take a polygraph test.

“I can tell you that my client categorically denies that he was untruthful,” Daffron said. “When you’re trying to rush something through a process, you not only shortcut the investigation, you shortcut utilizing things like a polygraph to assist in determining whether someone is truthful or not.”

Hutchins had bought the last year of his service in order to retire early, but he was fired days before his official retirement date.

Daffron said Hutchins “hit a point of burnout” in a significantly understaffed unit.

“It takes a certain individual to be able to work those cases because they take a toll because of the nature of the cases,” Daffron said. “Fourteen years in that assignment, you’re going to hit a burnout level, especially when each detective averaged being assigned one case a day. … The caseloads in those units are crushing.”

Sgt. Marc Povero, a police spokesman, said Hutchins had opportunities to leave the unit for other police assignments.

“He did not,” Povero said.

Under scrutiny

Concerns about Hutchins’ work first came to light in March over his handling of a 2014 case.

According to the disciplinary letter, Sgt. Wade Walls, the unit’s latest supervisor, received an email from Alliance For Children, an advocacy center for child abuse victims, stating that the mother of an alleged victim was inquiring about the status of a police investigation.

Walls reviewed the case and asked Hutchins why he had failed to file it with Tarrant County Juvenile Services, according to the letter.

“… Detective Hutchins stated he simply forgot and lost track of this case,” the letter states.

As a result, a review was ordered of the past two years of cases worked by Hutchins.

A more in-depth audit — spanning his 14 years in the unit — was later begun and a task force ultimately formed to help conduct the review and reinvestigate cases.

Although the review is continuing, some troubling cases worked by Hutchins have already emerged.

Last month, the Star-Telegram reported that he failed to arrest a registered sex offender whom DNA evidence had linked in 2006 to the sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl. The girl was kidnapped while walking to school in east Fort Worth in December 2002.

The sex offender, Donell Browning Jr., was eventually arrested by other detectives in 2013 after being accused of trying to kidnap two other girls as they walked to school a day apart. He is awaiting trial in connection with all three cases.

Hutchins is also alleged not to have thoroughly investigated a 2006 outcry by two sisters that their father had sexually abused them. The father was recently arrested after a third sibling said in April that, since 2006, he had abused her, too.

The girls’ mother said Wednesday that she believed the department made the right move in firing the detective, considering what appeared to be a pattern of neglectful handling of cases.

“That’s comforting to know that something is getting done,” she said.

The termination

Under Civil Service rules, Hutchins could face administrative discipline for only those policy violations that occurred within 180 days of the department becoming aware of the alleged violations.

The letter states that under that timeline, investigators uncovered five cases in which Hutchins showed neglectful conduct. According to the letter:

▪ Hutchins admitted to internal affairs investigators that he did not thoroughly investigate or attempt to obtain an arrest warrant in a Dec. 4 sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child report, despite probable cause existing. The case has been reassigned and an arrest warrant obtained.

▪ Hutchins admitted that he did not look into additional leads in an injury to a child report assigned to him on Dec. 12 because he did not have enough time to fully investigate it. The case has been reassigned and remains under investigation.

▪  Hutchins admitted that he did not interview a juvenile suspect for fear of obtaining a false confession in a reported sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child case assigned to him on Jan. 17. The case has been filed and accepted by juvenile authorities after being reassigned and a confession obtained.

▪ Though an arrest was made by patrol officers in a sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child case assigned to Hutchins on Feb. 2, he failed to submit a case to the district attorney’s office. The case has been reassigned and charges filed against the suspect.

▪ Hutchins allegedly lied to a investigator with the Navy about the status of a case he was assigned on Dec. 3, 2014, involving repeated sexual assaults that occurred at naval bases in California and Fort Worth over a number of years. Though he allegedly told the investigator that the case was under review by prosecutors, it had never been submitted to the DA’s office.

Daffron said she believes that investigators played fast and loose with the 180-day rule.

Understaffing alleged

Daffron said the department has been aware for years that specialized units like the Crimes Against Children unit are understaffed, pointing to a report by Justex Systems, a Huntsville-based consultant hired in 2001 to review the department's operations.

“It was determined due to the Crimes Against Children caseload and time it takes to complete the investigations, the unit needed 22 additional detectives and two supervisors to be staffed adequately,” Daffron said. “At the time this study was done, there was one supervisor and nine detectives.”

Daffron said the unit was later increased by only two positions, including one investigator who works only on cyber crimes.

The allegations against Hutchins led Fitzgerald to order supervisors of all the department’s 16 investigative units to review the cases of the roughly 200 detectives.

Also, supervisors are now required to perform monthly audits on cases, including follow-up phone calls, and the Special Investigations Unit will perform quarterly independent audits, officials have said.

Daffron said she believes that such reports do not address the real problem — the need for more staffing. She said she also believes that detectives should be rotated out of such stressful assignments after five years or so.

“Dennis’ actions were not malicious. They were not intentional. This is a detective who is burned out, who is exhausted, who is overworked and whose caseload was more than he can handle,” Daffron said. “And this is not just limited to him; the entire unit was understaffed significantly. And it’s not just his unit; there are other units in this Police Department that are in the same circumstance.”

Povero said the department agrees with the 15-year-old study that many of the department’s investigation units are understaffed.

“Since the Justex study came out, it has been made perfectly clear that we are understaffed and we have worked with the City Council to increase staffing departmentwide and we continue those efforts to this day,” Povero said. “With the growth within the city over the last 15 years, the need for more personnel has only increased.”

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd

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