Part 1 of a 5-part series
In 1997, Honolulu police officer Russell Won went to federal prison for his involvement in beating an inmate at the Pearl City police station.
A year later, he was back in Honolulu — and back in police work. The federal prison sentence didn’t cause the Honolulu Police Department to fire him. Instead, he was put on leave without pay while he did his time.
When his sentence was over he was assigned to train new recruits at the academy. He kept his gun and badge and went on to become a detective with a long career at HPD.
Won was one of three officers indicted and convicted at the same time for mistreating prisoners in their custody at the Pearl City station. In a plea bargain, Won eventually was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to a year in federal prison.
Sgt. Clyde Hayami went to prison for nearly five years for brutally beating three inmates on three separate occasions. In one of those incidents, Hayami, with the help of Won, clubbed an inmate over the head with a blackjack, sending him to intensive care.
Hayami was allowed to resign as a part of his plea deal, promising never to work in law enforcement again.
Officer Keith Flynn was also convicted in the incident involving Hayami and Won. Remaining on the police department, he served six months, dividing his time between a halfway house and his home. He was suspended but not discharged and reassigned to the Traffic Division’s Junior Police Officer program.
The case of the three officers made headlines in 1996, partly because it came on the heels of much-publicized community debate over police disciplinary records. A year earlier, the Hawaii Legislature had sided with the state’s powerful police union and barred police misconduct records from public disclosure.
It was a political battle of the highest order, fought in the courts, in the legislative hearing rooms, on the editorial pages and ultimately decided in the governor’s office. Then-Gov. Ben Cayetano allowed the exemption, which had not been granted for any other class of public employee, to go into law without his signature.
At the sentencing for Hayami and Flynn, U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra gave voice to the reality of what the Legislature and Cayetano had done.
Ezra believed that public knowledge of disciplinary problems was important to prevent abuse of power by police officers, according to an Aug. 6, 1996 report of the sentencing in the Honolulu Advertiser. By HPD keeping their actions secret, he said, it “creates a feeling of invincibility.”
“When a police officer is found guilty of misconduct after a fair hearing, the public has a right to know,” Ezra told a courtroom packed with police supporters. “If that had been in place, this case may never have happened.”
The public is given only a glimpse of what’s going on within the departments when it comes to misconduct. Under the 1995 exemption won by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO), the four city and county police agencies are required to send the Legislature an annual summary of cases in which a cop has been suspended or discharged for misconduct. The summaries list dozens of disciplinary actions a year, each in only a few words. There are no names, no dates, no times or places. Only a brief description of the incident and whether an officer was discharged or suspended and for how long.
Civil Beat has been exploring whether the public has been short-changed by the SHOPO exemption.
In 1995, the Legislature and Gov. Cayetano believed the police supporters who told them the infractions were generally minor and that there were checks and balances in place to winnow bad cops from the force. The supporters argued that police should not be publicly humiliated for the occasional bad decision that might have been made in a tense situation. Cops, they said, are under a lot of stress and should not be held to the same rules when it comes to misconduct as other types of public workers.
For the past six months, Civil Beat has been revisiting the question of whether the public can trust that Hawaii’s police officers, with their extraordinary power over ordinary citizens, are being held accountable for their actions.
We interviewed nearly 50 people, many of whom were at the heart of the issue both then and now. We investigated the local police commissions and county prosecutors, two oversight entities that legislators believed would help make sure the police were behaving appropriately. And we’ve reviewed thousands of pages of documents — court cases, legislative records, historical files and other public records to try to piece together what information has been kept secret from the public and the true extent of police misconduct.
At every turn, we’ve found that oversight of police officers is lacking, a far cry from what SHOPO and its supporters promised the Legislature.
And lawmakers now say they have been largely unaware of the extent of police misconduct. They are surprised by the lack of detailed information provided by police officials.
The entities legislators thought would take on the responsibility of watching over cops have had little effect. County police commissions only handle citizen complaints, not the most serious problems that are turned up internally or lead to criminal investigations. Prosecutors generally don’t initiate independent investigations of serious misconduct and only take on what the police departments ask them to.
Instead, police administrators and others say, it’s the SHOPO union contract that has come to control what, if any, discipline is handed down to officers accused of misconduct and whether that information is made public.
Civil Beat has made numerous attempts over the past six months to speak with SHOPO leadership for this story. But neither union president Tenari Ma’afala nor Honolulu chapter chair Stanley Aquino would talk with us.
As a starting point, Civil Beat obtained the annual summaries from 2000 through 2012 that the Honolulu Police Department — by far the state’s largest police agency — filed with the Legislature as required by the 1995 law. HPD couldn’t provide summaries prior to 2000. We complied the information into a database and categorized incidents by type so we could see the extent and seriousness of misconduct over the past 13 years.
We couldn’t find a single legislator who’d paid much attention to one before Civil Beat asked about them. Even legislative leaders, to whom the summaries are addressed, said they barely glanced at them.
“I don’t think that’s probably an effective way to get information to us,” said former Senate President Shan Tsutsui, now the lieutenant governor. “I can’t even tell you how many reports I had coming across my desk when I was Senate president.”
Additionally, local officials with authority over the police department also acknowledge they’ve never seen the summaries. Both former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle and current Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who was in the Legislature from 2002 to 2008, say they’ve never read one.
If they had been reviewing them, they would see that even the brief descriptions of police misconduct belie the picture painted by SHOPO and police supporters to the Legislature in the 1990s.
Our analysis of HPD summaries found that about once a week on average a Honolulu police officer is suspended or fired for misconduct. Many of these violations include domestic violence, abuse of suspects, lying, falsifying records and even criminal convictions. They are not primarily minor administrative failures or heat-of-the-moment bad decisions as SHOPO suggested.
Nearly 23 percent involve criminal behavior, ranging from what the department has characterized as assault and domestic abuse to fleeing the scenes of accidents. Incidents that involve criminal behavior outnumber administrative lapses, such as failing to turn in a report on time or being away from the radio without authorization.
Since 2000, out of 512 cases, only 12 HPD officers have lost their jobs after disciplinary action. Eight others were reinstated after the department tried to fire them. Two were allowed to resign. The rest of the cases ended with suspensions. In every case there is no information that would help the public understand why certain disciplinary action was taken or why similar-sounding incidents have vastly different penalties.
Police have argued that it’s a small number of officers on the force who are getting in trouble, and that generally bad cops are disciplined effectively.
“We deal with a lot of big-city issues when managing a department this size,” said HPD Capt. Andrew Lum. “It’s a large police department and we’re dealing with human beings who are policemen.”
But trouble in the ranks is not uncommon. Honolulu’s past two police chiefs have each made public statements calling for more accountability from their officers after a rash of arrests occurred on their watch. Still, the police administration only discharges officers convicted of felonies and allows cops convicted of misdemeanors to stay on the force, even when those convictions are pleaded down from original serious felony charges.
In the past year, Honolulu police have pleaded guilty to crimes ranging from growing and selling mass amounts of marijuana to lying to federal investigators about tipping off drug dealers.
Now retired, Carlton Nishimura was a police major when he was arrested on federal corruption, extortion and drug charges. Nishimura allegedly warned illegal gambling operations in exchange for money, and when he was found out is alleged to have tampered with a witness who had turned against him. His trial is set for September.
A few months ago, a group of HPD officers accepted a plea deal after they were caught falsifying drunken driving arrest reports in order to get more overtime pay. This resulted in about 200 DUI cases being dismissed by the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. Those officers are still on the job.
On Maui, a civil trial is expected to begin soon in the case of a former police officer who was sentenced to a federal prison term for sexually assaulting a woman while giving her a ride home. The officer, Kristopher Galon, had earlier stolen $1,550 from a man he had pulled over while on duty. Yet he remained a police officer until he was charged with the sexual assault.
Officer Russell Won, the one who beat an inmate and watched his sergeant club the man over the head with a blackjack, tried to hide his involvement, but was caught lying to a federal grand jury, according to federal court records.
He was charged with a felony, but eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that carried a year-long sentence. Then-Chief Michael Nakamura allowed him to stay on the department and take leave without pay while in prison because of his good service record, according to a story in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Neither Won nor Hayami nor Flynn could be independently reached for comment for this story. Attempts to reach them through HPD were also unsuccessful.
In Hawaii, police disciplinary files are released only after an officer is discharged and only after the termination survives a lengthy grievance process.
Even then, it’s difficult for the public to gain access to those files. Civil Beat asked for the files on three officers discharged in 2012 — the only ones that have not yet been destroyed from the 13-year-period we studied. The Honolulu Police Department charged us more than $2,000 for the three records, a price that ordinary citizens likely would be unable to pay.
Most other states are more open than Hawaii when it comes to police misconduct. Only 10 states prohibit public access to disciplinary records; most open the files as soon as an investigation is finished or a complaint substantiated. Hawaii is one of only a few states that release records only after an officer is terminated.
And in Hawaii, that record is destroyed after 30 months, according to a police spokeswoman. The records are often shredded shortly after the grievance process has played out — before the public even knows an officer has been discharged.
“There’s no political will to take on the police to fix these issues,” said Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz. “What you have in Honolulu — and the disciplinary process is a part of this — is an unwillingness to hold the police accountable. The union is too strong. The police commission is useless.”
Seitz frequently sues the police over civil rights violations, including for the use of excessive force and false imprisonment. He says that over the years he’s found a system that hides the misdeeds of officers while doing little to correct the underlying issues that lead to the wrongdoing.
“The community is not aware of what’s going on,” Seitz said. “The community is not cognizant that this is an ongoing, day-to-day problem.”
Much of the shroud that surrounds police officers’ misconduct starts and stops with SHOPO, the police union that represents 2,884 sworn officers in Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties.
The records weren’t always kept secret. In the early 1990s, a group of University of Hawaii journalism students wanted the disciplinary records of four Honolulu police officers. They wanted to see how seriously the public records law was taken in Hawaii, and police misconduct files were fair game.
The city, with SHOPO on its side, fought the students over the release of the information. The case went all the way to the Hawaii Supreme Court — the students won at every level — and the state’s highest court ordered the records released.
But that took three years, and by the time the court sided with the students, its ruling was moot. SHOPO had already used its growing political influence to convince the Legislature and the governor to change the law.
Legislators had said they could revisit the topic should it turn out the misconduct was more rampant than suspected. But as the years went by the reports were largely ignored aside from the occasional story in the local newspaper.
Now, lawmakers and others interviewed by Civil Beat over the past few weeks say they’d consider re-examining the issue. They say they had no idea how frequently officers are getting in trouble or how serious the offenses are.
Sen. Les Ihara, who as a young lawmaker nearly 20 years ago voted in favor of the SHOPO exemption, has already taken a small step. He wants to close a loophole in the timeframe the summaries must cover and is calling for more detail about incidents of police misconduct.
Senate Bill 839, which he crafted after learning about the extent of the issue from Civil Beat, has passed the full Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House.
But it falls short of providing the public with any real means of accountability. It specifically promises that officers’ names won’t be released and keeps the shroud of secrecy in place.
Former state lawmaker Annelle Amaral voted for the SHOPO exemption in 1995 while a member of the House. As a former patrol officer, she was one of its strongest advocates.
She now regrets an impassioned speech she gave during a floor vote on bill, in which she told her colleagues they would never understand the pressure cops face and that asking for their identities “is mean, is hard, is petty and is the worst thing by way of creating state policy that I have yet heard.”
But she’s changed her mind.
“Today, if I were in the same position I was back in 1995 I would give a different speech,” Amaral says now. “I do think that some things bear public scrutiny. Yes, officers are in a position of trust. They also carry awesome authority and control over people’s lives so they should be held to a higher standard.
“I do think the public needs to know if they’re being disciplined for serious offenses.”
Tuesday: Journalism students take on the cops