A lengthy police report released last week includes accounts from dozens of concertgoers, medics, police officers and producers who were present when the 2021 Astroworld festival turned into a disaster that left 10 dead and spawned thousands of lawsuits.
What the Houston Police Department’s 1,266 page document does not do is analyze what went wrong and why.
Written in flat, law enforcement jargon, the document provides glimpses into why a grand jury may have declined to indict musician Travis Scott and five others.
However, like two task force studies that came before it, the police report does not determine why the deadly crowd crush happened or who bears responsibility for the tragedy.
“There’s a lot of information in the police report. I think it will be valuable to plaintiffs,” Paul Wertheimer, an expert on crowd disasters, said in an interview. “But we don’t know key things. We don’t really know what happened, as far as stopping the show, who said what to whom and what were the protocols to stop it.”
Five days after the Astroworld concert disaster, Police Chief Troy Finner said it would take “weeks, possibly months” for detectives to wrap up a criminal investigation. In fact, 630 days elapsed between the concert and when the report was made public.
On June 29, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Scott and five others who played key roles on the night of Nov. 5, 2021, including private security executives and concert promoters.
Finner, at a news conference announcing the grand jury decision, promised the soon-to-be-released report would provide insight into a “complex” tragedy.
He declined to give a succinct answer when asked what went wrong.
“Multitude of factors. Multitude of factors, and again, that’s why I want (the report) out there,” Finner said. “I don’t think it’s going to be blatantly obvious to anybody. I think it’s very complicated.”
The sprawling report does not include an overarching summary or conclusion. Many of its pages are devoted to interviews with or statements from dozens of people who were on the scene the night of the crowd crush, only a fraction of whom were involved in overseeing the concert.
While many key figures were interviewed or provided statements, the report makes no attempt to assign credibility or blame. The lack of a summary left one national law enforcement expert perplexed.
Brian Higgins, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the former police chief in Bergen County, New Jersey.
“The purpose of a police report is not to just gather data,” he said. “It should identify the murderer and say, here’s how he/she killed the victim … I see things in this investigation that you can draw conclusions from, but that’s it.”
Higgins said as he read through the report, he wanted to definitively understand who was responsible, but the investigation does not offer a clear-cut answer.
“I don’t think the negligent (homicide) charge was too outlandish, but the police report doesn’t really draw conclusions and say this person was in charge and didn’t take action,” he said.
Houston Police Department spokesperson Victor Senties said the document released to the public was typical for a department offense report.
“Upon the completion of the investigation, the investigative findings were turned over to the Harris County District Attorney’s office for presentation to a grand jury, whose role was to establish if a crime may have occurred,” he said.
A ‘narrow window’ for charges
The report offers conflicting accounts of whether Scott knew that a disaster was unfolding in front of him — a key question, since 37 minutes passed between when the concert was declared a “mass casualty event” and when it ended.
Scott told police that he was never told about the mounting number of injuries, only that the crowd was getting “hectic” and the performance needed to end after guest artist Drake took the stage. Scott maintained that he was in a “trance” for most of his time on stage.
However, two engineers with access to the radio channel that provided Scott’s connection to the outside world said the rapper was told that three people had died, or that there were bodies on the ground, and that the concert should be wrapped up.
Police said they were not able to obtain a clean version of an audio recording.
Even if they had been able to, it may have been difficult for prosecutors to show Scott’s delayed exit was directly tied to additional deaths, said Murray Newman, a former prosecutor and current defense attorney.
“If Travis Scott had hypothetically just walked off the stage, would that have stopped this? I don’t know that you know what would have been the case,” Newman said.
Meanwhile, the top police official on the scene said in his statement that he worried about the possibility of a “riot” if the concert was halted suddenly. It is a concern that a defense attorney could make hay out of, Newman said.
Speaking at the June 29 news conference, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said her prosecutors had scoured the law books looking for charges that could apply to the case.
Prosecutors considered manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges. But they determined they were unlikely to be able to pinpoint a knowing act by anyone involved in the concert that had led to deaths, explained Alicia Harvey, a section chief in the district attorney’s office. Instead they looked at a charge of endangering a child, tied to the deaths of 14-year-old John Hilgert and 9-year-old Ezra Blount, who died a week after the concert.
“Realistically, the only crime that you can commit by omission that even remotely fits these facts was the crime of endangering a child, and in this particular case, we would need an omission that was committed … at the time that the danger to those two children was imminent, which leaves us with a very narrow window, and the grand jury heard the facts,” Harvey said.
Past concert disasters provide mixed lessons as to whether prosecutors can obtain convictions. Some have resulted in no charges at all.
In Rhode Island, the state attorney general obtained criminal charges against the owners of the Station nightclub and the tour manager for the band Great White, after a fire at a concert claimed the lives of 100 people in 2003.
All three pleaded guilty or no contest before trial.
In Chicago, the owners of a nightclub were hit with 21 involuntary manslaughter charges after a deadly crowd crush in 2003. The owners were found not guilty on those charges and were ultimately convicted on a lesser charge related to building code violations, which led to probation.
For Wertheimer, the crowd disaster expert, those earlier cases suggest Ogg could have pushed harder to secure charges.
Paul Doyle, a former prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney, said he never saw a path to accountability in the criminal legal system.
“I didn’t see anything that would lead to criminal charges. My guess is, law enforcement saw that too, but they were told they’ve got to investigate it, so they did,” he said.
No independent investigation
Past concert disasters on the scale of Astroworld often have led to the creation of independent investigations, with a mandate that went beyond criminal prosecution.
After a deadly concert by the Who in 1979, Cincinnati created a task force that included private citizens and a public hearing. Rhode Island created a state legislative commission after the Station nightclub fire, which also was investigated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Indiana hired engineering and emergency management firms to conduct assessments after a deadly stage collapse at a concert in 2011.
Houston-area officials passed on the opportunity to set up a similar investigation. Despite pleas from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in 2021, Commissioners Court voted down the idea, citing concerns such a report could provide ammunition for plaintiff’s lawyers in litigation against the county, which owns NRG Park.
Unlike reports from the task forces in other cities, the Houston Police Department report does not attempt to draw big-picture conclusions. The report addresses technical questions such as crowd management and barricade placement only glancingly.
Newman said that in his experience in Harris County, it would be unusual for police officers to attempt a broader analysis.
“A complicated HPD or Sheriff’s Office report, it looks like an anthology, and it may or may not be in order. This is what this officer did, and sometimes that’s important, sometimes it’s not,” he said. “It’s usually a Joe Friday, just-the-facts summary.”
Higgins said the report highlighted a conflict inherent in tasking detectives with investigating an event that involved their own chain of command. According to the report, Finner and Executive Assistant Chief Larry Sattwerwhite gave written statements rather than sitting for interviews.
“It’s very difficult for an officer in an agency to interview his/her own police chief and deputy chief,” he said. “But the FBI could have done interviews. Why were (Finner and Satterwhite) given this courtesy to give a written report?”
In a statement, Senties noted that 58 other police officers provided statements, as well. It is “standard practice” to request written statements from witnesses, he said.
“Detectives can, and do, request additional information or interviews if warranted,” he said.
At the June 29 press conference, Ogg noted the conclusion of the law enforcement investigation would not spell the end of the fallout from Astroworld. There still are many lawsuits pending.
“Whether civil liability and money damages, whether administrative help brings those families justice, I just hope that they achieve some kind of resolution that they can move forward with,” Ogg said. “If they’re not criminally accountable, then the next question will be whether they’re civilly accountable.”
The judge overseeing the civil cases has imposed a gag order on the parties. She has set the first trial for May 6, 2024.
The cases may be settled out of court on favorable terms for the victims and survivors, Wertheimer said. He said he fears, however, that the settlements could include terms that the documents and depositions associated with the case are never made public.
“If that occurs — and there’s a very real chance that the defendants will push for that in order to settle with the plaintiffs — we will never really know what happened,” he said.