The Hawaii Legislature adjourned Thursday without taking further action on a bill that would have tweaked the law requiring police agencies to file annual summaries listing disciplinary actions taken against their officers.
Senate Bill 839, introduced by Sen. Les Ihara, did little to change the current system that is the only way the public can track misconduct by police officers. But media representatives and others had urged legislative leaders to use the bill as a vehicle for substantially boosting the amount of information made available to the public.
Instead, the measure passed the Senate with little fanfare but stalled in the House when Rep. Henry Aquino deferred it in part because he said he wanted more information from the politically powerful statewide police union.
In many ways, SB 839 didn’t stand a chance this legislative session.
They couldn’t give SB 839 the attention they felt it deserved. It also made it difficult for them to push back against the police union, which opposed the bill.
“We as citizens don’t have the kind of time to be at the Legislature full time,” said Gerald Kato, a University of Hawaii journalism professor who lobbied heavily to keep the state’s shield law. “As it was, dealing with one issue was extremely time consuming.”
SB 839 targeted annual police misconduct reports that each county police department — Honolulu, Maui, Big Island and Kauai — are required to submit to the Legislature each year.
These reports summarize the number of officers who were suspended and discharged for misconduct, but provide little else in the way of detail.
No names, dates or case numbers are provided in the summaries and state law doesn’t require that information to be disclosed except in the rarest of circumstances, which is when an officer is fired.
Civil Beat‘s five-part investigative series, In The Name Of The Law, examined the lack of public disclosure of disciplinary action and demonstrated that police misconduct is much more serious and prevalent than lawmakers had thought when they granted the exemption in 1995.
Ihara’s bill included a housekeeping provision that would have required that the annual legislative reports cover a calendar year, fixing an ambiguity that exists. It also said police agencies should provide a “description” of each incident of misconduct rather than a “summary.” But no definition of a “description” was included.
But while the bill sailed through the Senate, it stalled in Aquino’s House Public Safety Committee. He gave it a hearing, but deferred it until he could gather more information about the topic.
In particular, he said he wanted to hear from the the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, which said SB 839 would “eviscerate current laws.”
Aquino never brought the bill back for a hearing, effectively shelving it until next session
Some senators said Thursday they hope to resurrect the measure next session and plan to improve it.
Sen. Will Espero has said he has some serious concerns about how police misconduct is handled in Hawaii, and thinks that everything should be on the table when it comes to discussing changes to the current laws that keeps this information out of public view.
While he supports SB 839, he believes it could strengthened to hold police officers more accountable for their misdeeds. This could even include releasing the names of officers who are suspended for misconduct.
“There are places where I think we could have made it better,” Espero said. “And who knows, maybe we could have come up with a compromise that even the police could support.”
Meantime, Espero and Ihara plan to gather information and pull together support for SB 839 or a similar bill. This could involve meeting with various stakeholder groups, including chiefs of police, other lawmakers, journalist organizations and union officials.
Ihara said he doesn’t think there will be much trouble garnering support in the Senate for Round Two. But he concedes there will likely be some work to do in the House.
“I think we got the conversation started,” Ihara said. “I think we can now kind of focus on what we want to get done and in the interim do some work.”
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