Let me make it clear right off the bat: I appreciate what cops do. But I’ve been a journalist long enough to know from experience that we often don’t see eye to eye on many issues, especially access to public records.
We see our job at Civil Beat as to tell you what government is doing, not just what it says it’s doing. To do that, documents are an essential foundation for the kind of work we want to do. So that’s why we went to Honolulu Police headquarters this week.
The visit was truly a first. I’ve worked as a reporter in a number of cities, but never have I encountered a fortress like Honolulu Police headquarters. At most police departments, based on my experience, the public can enter the building and journalists can go behind the counter and talk to officers. Not so Honolulu. It’s strange that in this, probably the friendliest city I’ve worked, the door to the police building might as well be a gate to a medieval castle.
It wasn’t always like this, I was told by a truly friendly and helpful spokeswoman, Michelle Yu. Everything changed after 9-11, she said. And then things got worse when a few reporters went places in the building where they weren’t supposed to be. The result: In a state where the Capitol is the most open I’ve ever seen, the police building is the most closed.
Three of us from Civil Beat were there to discuss our request for a few hundred police reports from last year — all the prostitution arrests to be precise. One of our reporters had made the formal request and the police is considering it. But I believe it’s best to meet in person to discuss such matters.
When we arrived for our appointment, Ms. Yu was already standing under the portico. Bad news, she said. All the conference rooms in the building were full. Her office was too messy. Maybe we could find a bench, she said. One wasn’t available. So we tried the museum. There were too many visitors there. So we ended up in the juvenile services reception area, with a couple of us on a bench and Ms. Yu and me sitting on tiny yellow plastic chairs meant for toddlers. Every couple of minutes, our conversation was interrupted when employees with badges would have to get through the narrow space.
Look, I recognize that we’re the new guys in town and just finding our way. So I appreciated that we could sit down and talk about our request and how the police might respond to it. It’s with the lawyers now, we were told. The problem for the police with a historical request like ours is that some of the cases are closed and some are still open investigations. Closed cases are public records. Open ones aren’t, we’re told. In open cases, whatever was reported in the booking log would be all that was public. But we’d have to look through volumes of paper booking logs to find them. If a case is closed, there could still be information in the reports that should be kept private under the law. The result is that to meet a request for records, every report first has to be reviewed to determine whether it can be made public and if that decision is yes, it still must be redacted to remove such things as social security numbers or the names of juveniles.
OK. But without the reports, there’s no other way to determine how the police are treating prostitution, or any other crime. No way to know how many arrests were made of johns, pimps or prostitutes, where they occurred, etc. The police lump all prostitution arrests together and say they couldn’t tell you how many arrests fit into each category, or much else analytical about what they’re doing.
The subject is newsworthy because on the governor’s desk sits an anti-human trafficking bill meant to help crack down on prostitution in Hawaii. The state has among the nation’s weakest john laws and is one of only a handful without a human trafficking law. HPD is central to the human trafficking fight. One of its officers leads the state’s anti-trafficking task force. Yet there’s no agreement on whether current laws are adequate. Prosecutors and police oppose SB 2045; some nonprofits concerned about the victimization of women are adamant that it’s needed.
We talked at length about our request and different approaches for getting the information we wanted. Ms. Yu offered helpful suggestions, but in the end we all agreed that it would be best if the police continued to work to fulfill our original document request. We also alerted Ms. Yu that other requests would be on her way.
For example, we talked about address specific requests. It’s typical for police departments to be able to tell the public how many times officers have been called to any address and how many arrests have been made there.
I thought it might help both the police and us work out our document request if we could see the report on record keeping the agency is required by state law to keep and make available to the public. When I asked for it, Ms. Yu looked a bit confused. She wasn’t familiar with that report, but would look into it, she said. (It turns out, I later learned from a call to the Office of Information Practices, that the records report required by law is electronic, and somebody else in the department probably works on it, not Ms. Yu.)
Finally, we told Ms. Yu we wanted to meet with the chief to introduce ourselves, tell him about Civil Beat and more specifically, to get his thoughts on human trafficking on Oahu. That would require a formal request, she said. That didn’t seem extraordinary. He’s an important and busy guy. Except that here, it’s not just to talk to the chief that you have to file a formal request. It’s the department’s SOP for reporters to have to ask Ms. Yu for an interview with an officer and then be given responses to their questions, apparently from the officer, by Ms. Yu or another person in her office.
When we wrapped up, Ms. Yu said she’d show us around a bit. In the building’s gloomy entry, we sat on another bench and went over the police logs and highlight reports that the department makes available for the media. I couldn’t believe that reporters are asked to look over these critical documents in such a dark and uncomfortable place. In most cities, they’re placed on a well-lit counter or table in a room, not outside in a dirty entry way.
We bumped into a group of kids on a tour, and then there was the chief himself, standing just a few feet away. Ms. Yu introduced us, but it seemed like he was much happier to talk with the kids. He was quickly gone.
On our way out, Ms. Yu showed us where the cameras are positioned in the basement to get photographs of the accused when they’re taken out of police vans. There’s a red line marking the spot beyond which photographers aren’t supposed to go. This is where the show occurs. The media gets the pictures it “needs.” The police get….I’m not sure what.
Then Ms. Yu said goodbye, and we walked back to the underground parking lot. A heavy metal door to the street slammed behind us.
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