Last of a 5-part series
Eighteen years ago former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano let bad cops off the hook when he allowed county police officers who got in trouble to remain anonymous.
Back then he said he was torn by his decision. But now he says granting that secrecy was a mistake.
His trust in the system of checks and balances has eroded over the past two decades.
“The reason I changed my mind is that during the last 10 years in particular there have been some actions by the police commission that seem very political,” Cayetano said, referring to the seven-member board that oversees the Honolulu Police Department. “Ideally the commission, if it did its job, would be sufficient to me. As it turns out these commissions are only as good as the people who are appointed.”
Cayetano is not alone in concluding that keeping police misconduct records secret may have been a bad idea. Former legislators, government watchdogs and even cops say hiding this information has led to problems.
State Sen. Les Ihara is already making an effort to tighten up that one reporting requirement. He drafted Senate Bill 839 earlier this year after discussing the issue with Civil Beat during interviews. The measure has passed the full Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House.
But others say Ihara’s measure may not go far enough.
“All issues in terms of the bill are on the table,” said Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee. “In terms of what’s reported, when it’s reported, names, I think it’s all up for discussion.”
Civil Beat analyzed Honolulu Police Department misconduct summaries over a 13-year period. Police officers are suspended or discharged about once a week on average, a rate that is troubling to lawmakers and others. Few are fired, even if they’ve been convicted of a crime.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the public records exemption thinking that police misconduct would be rigorously scrutinized by other entities — the county police commissions, the county prosecutors offices, even the police departments themselves.
But police commissions only investigate citizen complaints against officers, not the more serious misconduct that occurs regularly. And their deliberations and decision-making also is done out of public view.
Prosecutors rarely pursue independent action against police officers. They take the cases sent to them by the department, but that’s about it.
Cayetano says now he was especially troubled by the Honolulu Police Commission’s 2009 decision not to reappoint Boisse Correa as police chief. Correa had for the most part received high marks in his annual evaluations from the commission and was credited with bringing Honolulu’s crime rate to its lowest in 34 years.
But Correa had a frosty relationship with the state’s politically powerful police union. Work-weeks for officers became longer, which cut into their ability to work special assignments and earn more pay. His strict disciplinary policies caused grumbling in the ranks. His approach was to crack down soon and hard on offenders.
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) successfully lobbied the police commission to get rid of Correa, which it did with a unanimous 7-0 decision made behind closed doors.
Police commissioners then and now say the decision to remove Correa and replace him with current Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha had nothing to do with union politicking.
The public records law requires disclosure of all other public employees’ disciplinary actions 30 days after they are suspended or discharged for misconduct. County police have the only exemption.
Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto says identifying people who violate ethics rules potentially deflects future wrongdoing.
Public exposure for violating rules generally makes people think twice about doing something wrong, and it can educate others who may not have realized an action was inappropriate. Shame and embarrassment are strong deterrents, Totto said.
“The public deserves to know what their public officers are doing, whether it’s a police officer, a janitor, a council member or whoever,” Totto said.
“If there’s misconduct going on it’s important that the public understands two things. One is who is acting against the law, and number two, which agency is making sure that they’re trying to control that type of misconduct.”
But trouble in the ranks has been persistent.
HPD’s last two police chiefs have publicly denounced wrongdoing in their department after officers were arrested. They tried to beef up oversight efforts internally, but didn’t propose revisiting the public disclosure exemption, something Correa now says should be done.
In 2007, Correa asked for funding to add seven people to the internal affairs division. This was after a federal investigation netted five police officers for protecting an illegal cockfighting ring.
“I do not want our officers to be sent off to the federal penitentiary,” Correa is quoted as saying in a 2007 Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorial. “When they slip, we want to catch it early. If they have problems, we want to know about problems to prevent them from escalating to a different level.”
HPD’s Professional Standards Office — formerly internal affairs — has 12 investigators dedicated to handling misconduct. Their nearly $800,000 in salaries make up a tiny fraction of HPD’s more than $200 million budget.
Kealoha, whose been chief since 2009, echoed the sentiments three years later when five officers were arrested on suspicion of crimes ranging from shoplifting to domestic violence in just a four-month period.
Earlier that year, an officer was indicted for allegedly assaulting a Waikiki prostitute and another cop was accused of driving drunk and hitting a 61-year-old woman in a crosswalk.
But in December 2010, when an officer was charged with shoplifting food, Kealoha announced that he wanted to reinforce “the importance of making good personal decisions.”
“This arrest as well as the recent arrests of our officers is unacceptable,” Kealoha told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It erodes the public’s interest in an otherwise great police organization.”
What steps Kealoha has taken to ensure his officers make good decisions and whether that’s worked isn’t clear. The chief wouldn’t talk to Civil Beat for this series, and the annual summaries filed with the Legislature don’t show a drop in misconduct or disciplinary actions on his watch.
Former state Rep. Annelle Amaral is another one who thinks the 1995 exemption from public disclosure — which she voted for — was a mistake. Her change of heart is even more interesting because she’s a former patrol officer.
“I guess part of the angst that comes with being a cop is seeing just how much you put on the line every day and what it takes out of you and then how severe punishment is for police officers,” Amaral told Civil Beat. “It seems disproportionate for the kind of pressure that officers are under. But now I’m 64 years old and I think people should be held accountable for their behavior.”
Ihara is another senator who voted for the measure in 1995. It was his first term in the Senate and he says now he didn’t pay much attention.
“I wasn’t involved in the issue at the time,” Ihara said. “My good government type efforts started a few years later. I was just getting my feet wet and learning the ropes and focusing on whatever issues I was focused on then so I didn’t really track this bill.”
Over the years, Ihara has made government accountability and transparency his focus as a lawmaker. This session he’s supporting several measures that aim to improve public integrity and ethics in government, including campaign and financial interests disclosure.
SB 839, which has moved quietly through the Senate, would in essence close a loophole in the 1995 law that required police agencies to file annual summaries. Now, the law simply says annual summaries must be filed 20 days before the legislative session begins.
The reports have generally been submitted in mid-December but, because they don’t include dates of misconduct, it’s not possible to tell whether they are up to date through the end of the year and whether all incidents are being tracked.
Ihara’s bill makes clear the summaries are to cover the full calendar year.
The bill also calls for more detailed descriptions of the types of misconduct officers are getting punished for because the current information is “insufficient for the purposes of public accountability.”
But the bill doesn’t layout specifically what information should be included.
And it reiterates that officers’ identities will be protected.
“It’s to provide more information to allow the Legislature to have a better assessment of how the exemption is going,” Ihara said. “And it’s to allow some increased accountability without changing the whole thing.”
But the bill does provide a vehicle for greater change if lawmakers want to toughen the disclosure for police.
Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee, calls SB 839 little more than a “housekeeping” measure. But he says it could become more significant as it works it way through the Legislature.
The bill passed Espero’s committee with little fanfare or public notice. But, he says, the discussion isn’t over.
“This is a process that’s a three- to four-month process and if we can come up with a bill that both houses agree with and even where stakeholders are in agreement then we’ll press forward,” he said. “But at this stage I think there are possibilities with the measure.”
Espero said he hopes lawmakers will want to have a full-blown debate on the matter as the session moves forward.
Espero has been concerned about police misconduct for awhile now.
A couple years ago, Espero said, he started noticing news stories about bad cops popping up more regularly in the local media. In 2011, police officers had been indicted on extortion charges, convicted of sexual assault and jailed for running over pedestrians while drunk.
Espero started collecting the news clippings last year. He keeps them in a yellow folder, arms-length away on his desk.
“From my perspective it did appear to be too much because these are law enforcement officers and the public puts our trust and our faith in their hands,” Espero said. “The fact that these individuals are carrying guns and have a large amount of perceived authority and power it’s important that we have the most qualified individuals in these positions.”
SB 839 is before the House Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Aquino. He’s not yet scheduled it for a hearing, but promises to give it due consideration. He also said he’ll be open to amendments.
So far, SB 839 has not drawn a public reaction from SHOPO or police officials. That’s much different than the intensive lobbying effort the union and its supporters made in 1995 to win the exemption.
SHOPO leaders have not responded to repeated attempts to talk with them for this series.
The only testimony on SB 839 has come from two media organizations — the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter and the Media Council Hawaii.
“It is said that democracy dies behind closed doors!” Media Council Hawaii President Chris Conybeare said in written testimony. “While we support the men and women who serve in our police forces, we also feel that nowhere is transparency more important than with those who have police power.”
Former police chief Boisse Correa has seen first-hand how important it is to keep a tight rein on police.
“Officers have so much authority and so much discretion,” Correa said. “The officers have to know that somebody’s going to be watching over them.”
Correa blames the union’s manipulation of the state public record law for hiding much of the misconduct that takes place at HPD. While he believes small offenses, such as turning in a mileage form late, needn’t be disclosed, the more serious misconduct, particularly criminal matters, should be made public.
The annual reports to the Legislature don’t cut it, he said. Summaries don’t tell the whole story of what really took place. At the same time, Correa says police administrators are handcuffed by the union and the public records law.
“The public has a right to know what we do,” Correa said. “And the stuff we’re giving to the Legislature doesn’t paint a fair picture. We need transparency.”