In Hawaii, the names and salaries of public employees are public — except if you’re an undercover officer.

So what makes an undercover officer?

The Honolulu Police Department says its definition of undercover counts plainclothes duty.

But that’s not how the term is interpreted at other metropolitan police departments. And one police commissioner here in Honolulu says even he doesn’t agree with the police department’s definition.

“I don’t know if I would accept plainclothes. Plainclothes is plainclothes to me, which is different than being undercover — not being able to be identified as a police officer,” said Craig Watase, vice chair of the Police Commission. “One’s a subset of the other, but not necessarily. They overlap in a way. You could be plainclothes and undercover, and you could be in plainclothes and identifying yourself as a police officer. I think it just depends on the situation.”

Civil Beat has asked the Honolulu Police Department for the names, salaries and job titles of all officers, just the way it’s asked all other public agencies for that information about their employees. We have been in discussions with the department for more than a year.

State law exempts from public disclosure laws any “present or former employees involved in an undercover capacity in a law enforcement agency.”

Because the law doesn’t provide a definition of “undercover,” the department tried to get the Legislature to clarify the issue this year. But the Legislature declined to get involved.

Interviews by Civil Beat with four of the seven Honolulu police commissioners found varying opinions. Eddie Flores Jr., president and CEO of L&L Drive-in, declined to comment. Marc Tilker, chair of the police commission and CEO of BEI Hawaii, also declined, saying the commission doesn’t get involved in operations. Max J. Sword, a lobbyist for Outrigger, said the plainclothes definition makes sense.

Police Chief Louis Kealoha has told Civil Beat that his department does not keep in its personnel files information about the undercover experience of its 2,100 officers. In some cases, he said, undercover work was so sensitive that it needed to be kept secret — even from others within the department.

The only way to obtain this information is to interview every officer, the department says.

Yet, the department regularly makes public the names of officers in other instances. Whether they have received promotions or are cited in annual reports, officers names are routinely made public.

Hawaii isn’t the only state that makes an exemption for undercover officers. There’s a heightened concern for their safety. But the term is interpreted more broadly here.

California Publishes Roster of Officers

In California, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department regularly publishes a roster of its officers. Even vice officers names appear — even though they will occasionally do undercover work. The only names missing are deep undercover officers working on sensitive cases, such as investigating corrupt cops or other serious crimes.

“We have a lot of guys who are detectives that work plainclothes everyday that we don’t consider undercover,” said Commander Andy Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department. “Undercover for us would be guys that typically don’t even come into the police station.”

The department releases names and ranks, Smith said. A salary schedule, hosted on a government website, details the base salary for each rank.

Nevada Doesn’t Exempt Undercover Officers

Nevada has no exemption for undercover officers. Names, rank, salary, overtime and full compensation are all public.

“Our undercover officers … are on the rosters and payroll which are all public,” said Officer Marcus Martin, spokesman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“For many years, I was an undercover narcotics officer, and my name would still appear on payroll,” Martin said. “But the names I was using would never appear anywhere.”

Having an exemption for undercover officers doesn’t make a lot of sense from a transparency standpoint, Martin said.

“When a police department hires a police officer, there’s an obligation to the public to show where that money goes, and suddenly that person disappears for a few years? It usually doesn’t work that way,” he said.

The information has been published in the newspaper annually for “as long as I can remember,” said Martin, a 16-year veteran.

Utah Doesn’t Offer Automatic Protection

In Salt Lake City, being undercover does not automatically protect records.

“Just because someone’s undercover necessarily doesn’t mean that it would make it a protected record,” said Det. Mike Hamideh. The undercover exemption mostly comes into play in investigative reports.

Salaries of all officers are public in Utah.

“For us, that’s not an issue,” Hamideh said.

Honolulu Union Opposes Disclosure

In Honolulu, the department’s most recent estimate is that it would take 565 hours — and cost Civil Beat $6,050 — to put together this information.

At first, the department refused to say what constitutes undercover. Does undercover work requires an officer to assume a new identity where he or she does not carry a badge and cannot identify him or herself as a police officer?

Or does a single day of plainclothes duty on Waikiki beach count?

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers has told the chief and Civil Beat that it believes the most inclusive definition should apply. It says it’s concerned about the safety of officers, not keeping secret their salaries.

When pressed, Duane Pang, deputy corporation counsel for the city of Honolulu, wrote:

Since you have insisted that HPD formulate a definition in response to your email, HPD will apply a definition that is widely recognized as follows:

“Undercover capacity” is any law enforcement activity in which the police officer gathers evidence of criminal activity without disclosing his/her identity to the suspect.

Taken from Black’s Law Dictionary definition of “undercover agent”.

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