In 2010, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha told state lawmakers that one of his officers was suspended for 626 days.
Beyond that, Kealoha gave little information. No name. No date. No detail. Just a four-word sentence on a piece of paper.
“Hindered a federal investigation.”
The brief record of disciplinary action is all that county police departments are required to publicly reveal about misconduct by officers who are suspended.
But now the conversation seems to be changing, and how best to police Hawaii’s law enforcement officers looks to be a major talking point in 2014.
The chair of the Senate Public Safety committee wants to create a statewide police standards board that could play a key role in oversight of law enforcement officers, including weeding out bad behavior.
Another lawmaker has said he plans to re-visit a proposal to require police agencies to disclose more information about disciplined officers.
The courts also are scheduled to take up the issue of public disclosure of police misconduct. Civil Beat on Tuesday asked a Circuit Court judge to rule in a case seeking records of 12 officers suspended for serious issues. A hearing has been set on the motion for summary judgment for Jan. 21 before Judge Karl Sakamoto.
The public has been prevented from knowing much about police misconduct since 1995, when the Hawaii Legislature sided with the politically influential statewide police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) and allowed many disciplinary records to be withheld. The only glimpse comes in the annual summaries to the Legislature, where Kealoha mentioned the long suspension of his officer for interfering in a federal investigation. The reports list how many officers were suspended or fired for breaking department rules.
But these reports are often overlooked by lawmakers even though they contain alarming information about serious acts of misconduct, including violent behavior, lying, alcohol and drug abuse and criminal convictions.
Civil Beat examined the issue in its five-part investigative series, “In The Name Of The Law,” which found that the shroud surrounding police misconduct leads to a lack of public accountability.
Hawaii Sen. [[Will Espero], who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, plans to introduce a measure that would create a statewide standards and practices committee to oversee police officer training.
“There’s room for improvement in all facets of government, and there’s certainly room for improvement in law enforcement, whether it’s the county or the state,” Espero said. “If this is something that can improve public safety overall and raise the standard of our law enforcement officers then that’s good for everybody.”
He said he hasn’t yet decided if his legislation will include a component to create a police certification and licensing board, similar to those set up for teachers, lawyers and medical professionals.
These boards can help keep troublesome officers off the streets by revoking their licenses should they violate departmental rules or continually fail to meet training standards.
Espero also plans to introduce a bill that would prevent county and state police from carrying their service weapons while under the influence of alcohol. The proposal comes from the circumstances of the high-profile murder trial of Christopher Deedy, a U.S. State Department agent who shot and killed a Kailua man in Waikiki after a night of drinking with friends.
HPD already has a policy that states that impaired officers should not be carrying a firearm, according to spokeswoman Michelle Yu. If there’s a need for response, she said, an off-duty officer should call for an on-duty officer.
Besides Espero, Sen. Les Ihara has been working on legislation that would force county police departments to provide more information on their annual misconduct reports to the Legislature. Ihara introduced a similar bill last year, in part based on Civil Beat’s investigative series, but it died in the House after passing the Senate. Rep. Henry Aquino, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, deferred it before it was brought to a vote. Aquino said at the time he was waiting to get more information from SHOPO.
Both Ihara and Aquino were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Civil Beat continued to push the issue of disclosure despite lack of action by lawmakers.
The online news site filed a lawsuit against the city of Honolulu and the Honolulu Police Department seeking disciplinary records of some officers who had been suspended for egregious misconduct.
“People must be able to trust their government, particularly the government officials charged to protect them and uphold the law,” Civil Beat’s attorney Brian Black wrote in a recent court filing.
“Secrecy only fuels distrust. Public records laws accordingly provide citizens a means to ensure that their government functions with integrity respect and fairness.”
The city and HPD are pushing back, citing the Legislature’s exemption for cops from disclosure and a prior court case.
Civil Beat’s lawsuit specifically targets the lack of transparency surrounding police misconduct, saying in the recent motion for summary judgment that “a fundamental tenet of democratic government … is that accountability requires an informed electorate.”
Under the Uniform Information Practices Act, police officers are exempt from having their disciplinary records released if they were suspended for misconduct. They are the only public employees in the state afforded this exemption.
For instance, if a college professor or county janitor is suspended for wrongdoing, those records can be made public.
But the state records law does allow departments to release the names and disciplinary files of police officers who have been fired for misconduct, although this information is only kept for a short time after termination.
Civil Beat’s lawsuit, however, is attempting to force the city and HPD to release the files on suspended police officers, citing decisions by the Hawaii Supreme Court and the Office of Information Practices that found the public interest in disclosure outweighs any privacy interest an officer might have.
“With appropriate access to disciplinary records, the public may assess how agencies are responding to misconduct complaints,” Black said.
“Has the agency thoroughly investigated the incident and fairly treated the government employee? Has the agency taken sufficient steps to ensure that government employees will act as professional and honest servants of the public? Access helps the public understand how the agency’s disciplinary process preserves the rights of both government employees and the public.”
HPD has said it does not comment on pending litigation.