Editor’s Note:Civil Beat is exploring the state’s public records law and policies in its series Not So Public and is interested in the experiences of citizens as well as other agencies in trying to obtain public information.
More than a year ago, Civil Beat asked the Honolulu Police Department to disclose information that should be public about two officers. Both had been caught on the wrong side of the law and had been featured prominently in the news.
Maj. Carlton Nishimura had been indicted in February 2011 by a federal grand jury for corruption, tampering with a witness, and taking bribes for giving illegal game room operators tips before raids. He later was re-arrested for allegedly dealing methamphetamine out of his home.
At the same time, a second veteran officer, Boyd Kamikawa, had pleaded no contest to charges of drunken driving and twice driving with a revoked license.
We asked for basic employment information about both officers, including their job descriptions, education and training backgrounds, and previous work experience.
But the department rejected our request, citing the “undercover” officer exemption in the law.
It was the same response HPD gave us when we asked for the names, salaries and job titles of all officers. Nevermind that we’ve asked all other public agencies for that information about their employees and they have all complied.
Rejection in hand, Civil Beat filed an appeal with Hawaii’s open records agency.
Now, more than a year later, the Office of Information Practices has just informed us that they’re finally taking up our appeal.
Hearing Appeals, Years Later
OIP is responsible for overseeing the state’s open records and open meetings laws.
If a member of the media or the public disagrees with an agency’s response to a records request, the matter can be appealed to OIP. The agency’s lawyers make a determination of whether or not the denial was appropriate.
But some appeals aren’t evaluated for years. OIP says it’s due to a large backlog. They don’t necessarily take cases in order and often pick and choose based on what’s the highest priority.
Earlier this month, Linden Joesting from OIP called and said she was preparing to review our appeal. But before she did, she asked if we were still interested in pursuing the matter.
So much time had passed that we couldn’t remember at first what we’d asked for. Former editor John Temple’s name was on the original appeal, which was dated April 21, 2011. Joesting reminded us that it was about HPD and that we had asked for two officers’ employment information.
OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park says her department is working hard to reduce the backlog. OIP ended the 2012 fiscal year with 78 backlogged cases. That’s down from 84 cases in 2011 and 121 cases in 2010.
Some cases are so ancient, we wonder whether the appeal is even relevant anymore.
“We had one really old case that we were really working hard to get out,” Park said.
That case, cleared in 2012, was from 2000, she said.
Hawaii law requires disclosure of much information about public employees but provides an exemption for law enforcement officers who work undercover. But it doesn’t define undercover or say when that definition applies. Our two officers had been widely discussed in news reports, their names and pictures all over the TV, newspapers and websites.
One’s trial is set for Oct. 16. The other was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
It’s too late to use any information we might have gotten to help people understand the situation with the two officers. But it’s never too late to clarify the law. For that we can wait another year if we have to.
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