Is the name and salary of a police officer public in Hawaii?

The answer, under the law, appears clear.

As the state Office of Information Practices told the city of Honolulu in September: the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act “requires the city to disclose the name, title and salaries for all city employees…unless an employee is or was in an undercover law enforcement activity.”

But the city still has not released that information to Civil Beat, although every other agency of state and city government has complied with the law, naming sheriff’s and corrections officers, prosecutors and public defenders, among others.

Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha has come around to the view that most of the names should be released, as they are on the mainland, even in the most conservative of states, Utah. He believes that just narcotics and vice, criminal intelligence and criminal reduction officers should be excluded.

But the police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, is opposed to the idea. Its president and attorney did not return repeated phone calls from Civil Beat, but in a meeting late last year told us that it believed that 99 percent of officers should be covered by the undercover exemption because they worked in plain clothes at least one day.

In this case, the chief doesn’t buy the union’s argument, but he said he doesn’t want to “open the department up for civil suits” from officers who claim that they had a right to have their name protected under the law.

“What we want to do is come up with a definition and go to the Legislature with that,” he said. He says the union is also writing its own definition of undercover, preparing it for the Legislature to review.

The claim by the chief and union that the law is not clear is ironic.

Neither has had any problem publicizing the names and even photographs of officers in the department’s annual report, on its public blog, in meetings with reporters and even in officers’ own Twitter feeds  — without ever checking whether the names its disclosing should be protected under the law.

The city has admitted this to Civil Beat. It has acknowledged that it routinely has made public the names of officers, with no check of records to determine whether doing so would be contrary to the open records exemption for undercover officers.

Yet now that a member of the public has asked for those names — and for their salaries paid by taxpayers — it’s a different story.

Now the police union wants the names of the department’s officers to be secret. Sounds more like the kind of thing that would be done in a nation that didn’t share our values, maybe Cuba or Libya, Iran or North Korea.

The union has put a gun to the head of the chief, the bullet being the costly and time-consuming lawsuits it warns could fly if he doesn’t comply with their thinking.

No problem naming us when we’re promoted, chief, it seems to be saying. Or when we’re cited for good work, either. No problem running our pictures throughout the annual report. But when the possibility of releasing their salaries along with their names arises, well, that’s a different story.

The union argues for the most sweeping definition of undercover possible. It says that undercover essentially means working in plain clothes. It told me that every officer for at least one day has worked in plain clothes, say monitoring activity on the beach in Waikiki or fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

But that is a definition that would require the department never to reveal the name of any police officer for fear of a lawsuit from one who says his or her name should have been kept under wraps.

Undercover actually means something different. Undercover means an officer who has adopted a new identity that can never be linked to his or her role as an officer in the department.

Undercover officers assume fictitious identities. They are provided with identification and credentials as needed to conceal their law enforcement role. They don’t carry their police badge, because they’re working to build the trust of criminals.

Plainclothes officers wear ordinary clothes to avoid detection or identification as a law enforcement agent, but they still use their own identity. Undercover agents use an assumed identity.

If the name of an undercover officer were revealed when they’re working undercover, they’d be in immediate danger. The same can’t be said of an officer working Waikiki beach in an aloha shirt and slippers.

That’s probably the reason the department goes to such lengths to protect undercover officers. The chief tells me personnel files do not indicate whether officers have worked undercover. It’s secret. To comply with the law as he’s willing to do, it will require him to review every personnel file and ask every officer, he told me.

There’s no denying that police officers place themselves into danger to serve the rest of us. That is why so many of us are grateful for their work. But undercover officers put themselves into even more stressful situations than uniformed or plainclothes officers. Revealing their identity could be dangerous, which is why lawmakers rightly protected them when they wrote the public records law. But to expand that concern to all plainclothes officers after years of routinely disclosing officer identities makes it seem like something else is going on here, something to do with money.

It seems like the union is happy to enforce the law when it applies to others.

But when a law has an impact on them they don’t like — exposing their salaries for public review — it’s another story.

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