Critics say a bill passed Tuesday by the Hawaii Legislature would lessen training standards for conservation enforcement officers who wield Tasers and other electric guns.

A bill now headed to conference committee would exempt officers with the Department of Land and Natural Resources from accreditation and recognition standards for electric guns. Instead, DLNR could wait until 2018.

Training standards for police, sheriffs and other enforcement groups are certified by a national organization called the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

The department wants the exemption for its Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, which has full police powers and enforces all state laws and rules involving state lands, parks, historical sites, forest reserves, aquatic life and wildlife areas, coastal zones, conservation districts and state shores.

DLNR says the accreditation process is lengthy and costly. The agency didn’t include a cost figure in its written testimony.

But the ACLU of Hawaii says the legislation — House Bill 2681 — is a bad idea. By lessening training and standards, the state could expose itself to liability for use of excessive force.

People could also get hurt, says the ACLU.

DOCARE = Cops

Hawaii citizens, including licensed manufacturers, are not allowed to own electric guns.

But county police departments can use them. So can the Department of Public Safety — which runs state prisons — and Army and Air National Guard when assisting civil authorities during disasters.

DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement — aka DOCARE — which also enforces laws relating to firearms, ammunition and dangerous weapons, is also permitted to use the weapons.

Hawaii law defines electric gun as “any portable device that is electrically operated to project a missile or electromotive force.”

A Taser is an electronic gun that disrupts the nervous system and can be fired from a distance. It is not the same as a so-called stun gun, which has to make physical contact to incapacitate someone.

Aila explained in his testimony why his officers needed electric guns.

“Electric guns provide a viable alternative to the need for a law enforcement officer to escalate to the use of deadly force when dealing with a non-compliant combative suspect,” he testified. “Any officers working in remote isolated areas will be able to apprehend and secure potentially dangerous individuals without injury to themselves or to the difficult to handle individual.”

Aila said DOCARE officers, like cops, “have been forced to confront unruly individuals who were under the influence of alcohol and illegal drugs, often without any backup.”

Risk of State Liability

The ACLU sees things differently than the DLNR director.

“The ACLU of Hawaii opposes any attempts to reduce the amount of training that law enforcement officers must receive before using lethal weapons such as TASERs or other electric guns,” said ACLU attorney Laurie Temple in her testimony. “The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently concluded that Maui Police Department officers used excessive force in using a TASER on a domestic violence victim … by lessening training and accreditation standards, the State is exposing itself to liability for excessive force (not to mention putting the safety of the community at risk).”

Temple wrote: “Law enforcement officers need more training and better policies, not less. The Department of Land and Natural Resources is no exception.”

Aila acknowledged the need for “to provide adequate training” and protocols governing the use of electric guns.

Only a handful of lawmakers voted against SB 2681.

They included Rep. Della Au Belatti, a Democrat, who argued that training is essential. Another Democrat, Karen Awana, said she had heard examples of DOCARE officers abusing their authority.

The ACLU said it will continue to urge lawmakers to kill SB 2681, said attorney Daniel Gluck. If it passes, they’ll take their case to the governor.

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