University of Hawaii journalism student Jahan Byrne’s records request to the Honolulu Police Department for police disciplinary records came on the heels of a 1993 legislative change to the state’s public records law, which was then less than five years old.
Ever since the Uniform Information Practices Act took effect in 1989, there had been confusion over what information should be released when a public employee is disciplined for misconduct.
In 1991, Ka Leo, the UH student newspaper, published the names of two professors who had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. Two lawsuits quickly followed, one coming from the UH faculty union and the other lodged by the Hawaii Government Employees Union.
In 1993, the Hawaii Legislature took up the issue, and changed the UIPA to better define the limits of disclosure of disciplinary records for public employees.
But lawmakers also gave county police officers a special provision. If an officer got in trouble while off-duty, their departmental punishment wouldn’t be made public. Their on-duty misconduct, however, was public information.
Other government workers had no such protection from public airing of their suspensions or discharges.
The revised public records law also banned the release of disciplinary information on public employees until 30 days after a grievance procedure had concluded and a written decision sustaining an employee’s suspension or discharge had been issued. That’s still the law today.
These caveats worried Byrne even then. During the 1993 legislative session he took a strong stance against the provision, submitting written testimony to Rep. Noboru Yonamine, at the time chairman of the House Committee on Labor and Public Employment.
Byrne was concerned that police officers, “with their powers to arrest, detain, search and seize,” were being held less accountable than other government employees. He also noted that in recent years, the City and County of Honolulu had spent millions of dollars settling lawsuits and paying judgments in police brutality cases.
“Police representatives have also complained that since their private, off-duty behavior is also regulated by departmental standards of conduct, it is unfair to make complaint information public,” Byrne said. “However, if we are to believe the police when they say that officers are never really ‘off-duty’ and that they always retain the color and authority of their badge, then they must be held to the same standards of conduct while on duty and off duty.”
By not releasing information about misconduct until after a union grievance process was completed, Byrne said government agencies would crawl through those procedures and union representatives would appeal every disciplinary decision.
This “will conspire to prevent prevent disciplinary action information on any government employee from coming out before the end of this century,” he said.
Byrne, who represented the UH chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, wasn’t the only one with reservations about the bill. Both The Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin opposed the proposed law as did the Big Island Press Club and SPJ.