Improving the way domestic violence cases are handled is an issue lawmakers seem intent on moving through this year’s legislative session. 

On Thursday, the Senate public safety committee approved several bills that seek to improve police oversight and transparency, including one that aims to put body cameras on county officers and their vehicles.

But the bills that generated the most debate stemmed from a desire to improve police response to domestic violence complaints, particularly those in which the officers themselves are the accused.

HPD arm patch. 4 jan 2017

Police reform has been on the legislative agenda for several years in a row.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In particular, lawmakers went toe-to-toe with the state police union over Senate Bill 519, which would make it easier for citizens to lodge complaints against police officers that involve allegations of domestic violence or abuse of a family member.

Current practice under the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers collective bargaining agreement requires any external complaint against an officer to be made in writing and sworn to by the complainant.

But advocates for SB 519, including Cathy Betts of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, said that such requirements to submit complaints in writing can be particularly difficult for victims, especially if they are still vulnerable to continued violence.

“This process can be frightening for victims and witnesses to abuse, and many may fear personal retaliation for submitting a complaint,” Betts said in written testimony. “Additionally, this current procedure acts as a deterrent on future complaints.”

“Victims of domestic violence or any other citizen wishing to make a complaint about an officer should not have to go through such a stringent process with little anonymity or mechanism to prevent retaliation,” she said.

But SHOPO attorney Barbara Wong, who is a former HPD officer, told committee members that the union’s collective bargaining agreement and the laws governing it would trump SB 519.

She also said that a sworn, written statement was more beneficial to both victims and officers because it puts the allegations in writing, which can make it easier to recall statements should a case go to court or before an arbitrator who decides whether to mete out punishment.

Sen. Laura Thielen, who introduced SB 519, directly challenged Wong’s reasoning, however, saying that SHOPO’s collective bargaining agreement would still be subject to state law.

Thielen also pointed out that SB 519 had nothing to do with criminal prosecutions; it’s instead focused solely on administrative investigations that would be conducted by a department’s internal affairs division.

“You said you can’t pass this bill because No. 1, it would violate the collective bargaining law and No. 2 you need a written complaint to help with the prosecution,” Thielen said. “The point I’m making is No. 1, it doesn’t violate the collective bargaining law, and No. 2, this has nothing to do with criminal investigations.”

She added: “You do understand that one of the most dangerous times for victims of domestic violence, potentially life threatening times, is when they reach out for help because at that point the abuse, the violence, may turn deadly?”

Sen Laura Thielen questions Dept of Health Keith Ridley in Capitol Room 16 on care home reports being made public with up to 2 month delay.

Sen. Laura Thielen was critical of SHOPO’s testimony, which she said was inaccurate.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Wong said she “absolutely” understood. She also reiterated that she was simply before the committee parlaying the union’s stance.

Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the public safety committee, also strongly supported SB 519.

“My responsibility is to get bills that I believe we should move forward,” Nishihara said. “This is one that I think should move forward. Now the next committee and the courts may decide otherwise. But that’s where it’s going to go.”

Other bills passed by the public safety committee Wednesday included one that would require mandatory disclosure of a county police officer’s name if that individual had been suspended twice in five years.

The committee also passed a bill that would require county police commissions to include members with backgrounds in women’s equality, civil rights and law enforcement.

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