A bill that would provide more information about misconduct of county police officers still has life, but there’s little guarantee it will survive the legislative session.

On Thursday, Senate Bill 839 had its first hearing in the House Public Safety Committee, but was deferred so the chair, Rep. Henry Aquino, could collect more information about the measure.

The deferral comes on the heels of the state’s powerful police union testifying against the bill, saying it could potentially violate state law if it means identifying officers who have been suspended for misconduct.

SB 839 seems relative innocuous as written, and in fact one open records advocate called it “laughably cosmetic.”

Besides making clear that mandatory summaries of disciplinary action must cover the calendar year, the bill essentially changes one word in the current law — from “summary” to “description.”

That tweak prompted State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) President Tenari Ma’afala to argue in written testimony that SB 839 would “eviscerate current laws” that guard cops from having to release details about their wrongdoing. Ma’afala said the measure would infringe on their due process rights guaranteed through the union grievance procedure.

“Any additional requirement to add detailed facts to a summary of misconduct that resulted in a suspension or discharge of the officer may prematurely and unfairly identify the officer,” Ma’afala said. “Further, the county police departments would be in violation of this law should the descriptions they provide indirectly identify an officer who has been suspended, or was discharged without first having had the opportunity to exercise and exhaust fully all of the administrative remedies, which are specified in the collective bargaining agreement and in state law.”

Ma’afala also noted in his testimony that SHOPO “carefully” vets all grievances regarding police discipline, and that while some punishment is upheld or reduced, there are other cases that are overturned because there was no “just cause.”

SB 839 aims to have the four county police departments — Honolulu, Maui, Hawaii and Kauai — provide more detailed information about officers who are suspended or discharged for misconduct. But how much more detailed is unclear. There is no definition in the bill for “description.”

Each year the counties are required to send a report to the Legislature with summaries of these incidents. Very few people, including lawmakers, have read them. But those who have, including the bill’s sponsor Sen. Les Ihara, say the summaries are too vague, making it difficult to know if bad cops are being properly punished.

Under Hawaii’s public records law, the public can gain access to police misconduct records, including names and other details about the wrongdoing, if the termination is upheld after the union grievance process. The public is barred from getting information about officers who have been suspended — an exemption afforded only to the police. Other public employees’ disciplinary files are available for public review.

SHOPO convinced the Legislature to grant the exemption in 1995, in a highly publicized legal and political battle. Lawmakers undermined a Hawaii Supreme Court decision that found police disciplinary files should be public.

The Office of Information Practices has said that the Supreme Court ruling trumps the legislative change. OIP says even suspended officers’ files must be made public.

University of Hawaii journalism professor Gerald Kato was in the middle of that fight along with some of his students. He’s now supporting SB 839, and wrote a letter to the Public Safety Committee outlining his support as a member of the Media Council Hawaii.

Kato’s testimony recounts his three-year stand-off with SHOPO as well as the ruling of the late Circuit Court Judge John Lim, who told a courtroom full of cops that the public has a right to know about the conduct of its police force.

It’s time to “breathe life” into Lim’s ruling, Kato said. He also noted that while the Media Council Hawaii supports the intent of SB 839, the group would like to see even more disclosure when it comes to troublesome cops.

“We believe that the Legislature and public are entitled to meaningful information on police misconduct and disciplinary actions,” Kato said. “This includes names of officers and relevant details about the misconduct and disciplinary actions taken by police departments across the state. The current process of reporting is so general that the information, as revealed in a recent series of articles in Civil Beat, is of little to no value as a means of maintaining public accountability.”

Civil Beat wrote a five-part series on police misconduct in Hawaii and the secrecy surrounding it. That investigation found that even though officers are getting disciplined for misconduct on a regular basis — about once a week on average in Honolulu — little information is available about their misdeeds, even if they were guilty of committing crimes.

Kato, though, isn’t the only one who has been bothered by the lack of information and public accountability. UH professor emerita Bev Keever was also drawn from the past to testify on SB 839.

Keever was also a journalism professor at the university in the 1990s when SHOPO was lobbying the Legislature to change the public records law to hide the identities of bad cops. She fought back, but lost.

She calls SB 839 “laughably cosmetic,” and believes it needs to be broadened to match the disclosure requirements of other public employees guilty of misconduct.

“The Legislature didn’t listen then, but now your in-depth attention is urgently needed,” Keever wrote in testimony, adding that the responsibilities of police officers have increased due to Homeland Security requirements.

“The public confidence in their local police officers would be greatly strengthened if this bill is recast to broaden it so that police officers, except for undercover officers, are given the same public scrutiny as all other public employees under the state’s open-records law.”

It’s now up to Aquino to schedule another hearing on SB 839. He didn’t set a date, and he has only two weeks pass the bill from his committee to the House floor.

The time crunch plus the lack of a set hearing are not good signs for Ihara’s bill. In many cases, a deferral is the equivalent of shelving a bill for the session.

But Aquino said after Thursday’s hearing his intention is to bring the bill before his committee again. He just wants to get some questions answered, specifically from SHOPO, before making a decision. Aquino also wanted to get some legal insight from the Attorney General’s Office on matters of law related to collective bargaining and public records.

“Hopefully I can get those answers that I need and we’ll go from there,” Aquino said. “We still have several weeks. I do have technically two more hearing days so it really depends on when I can get the information. So there is time.”

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