Hawaii’s politically powerful police union wants to intervene in a public records lawsuit in order to protect the identities of 12 Honolulu officers who were suspended for 20 days or more after committing serious acts of misconduct.
The union’s attorneys argue in court papers filed last week that they should be allowed to take part in the case because they have the best interests of the officers at heart, and that any release of personal information could have long-standing effects on the rest of the labor group’s membership.
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) represents about 2,000 police officers in all four counties, the majority of whom are on Oahu.
The legal action came after HPD denied a public records request for that information citing privacy concerns. The news organization believes the files should be public information under the state’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act.
The city and HPD have already opposed the court action but SHOPO attorneys Vladimir Devens and Keani Alapa say that’s not good enough.
In documents filed Dec. 26, Alapa, a former HPD officer himself, argues that the union must insert itself in the case to “protect and preserve the privacy interests” of its members. The hope is the judge in the case will allow SHOPO to be a party to the lawsuit, therefore giving the union the opportunity to file legal briefs and argue in court.
“The potential precedent of an adverse order would negatively affect SHOPO’s entire membership,” Alapa wrote in the union’s Dec. 26 motion. “This is especially disconcerting because SHOPO’s Members would have no real say in this controversy if they are not allowed to intervene, despite their direct interest in the subject matter being disputed. It is essential that SHOPO be permitted to intervene now or it may forever lose its ability to challenge the attacks on its Member’s privacy interests now and in the future.”
Alapa also argues that the union gives the officers their best option for fighting the lawsuit, since the city and HPD will approach the lawsuit from a managerial standpoint and not as a labor organization that has the sole interest of sticking up for its members.
The city and HPD also have “certain duties to the general public” that will result in “unavoidable potential conflicts” when those duties are applied to specific officers.
“For example, in deciding whether to disclose certain privacy matters, HPD is required to balance the public’s interests to information with the privacy interests of its employees affected by the disclosure,” Alapa said. “In such circumstances, SHOPO is in a better position to provide a more dedicated representation for its Members.”
Civil Beat’s lawsuit stems from its five-part investigative series, In The Name Of The Law, that examined the secrecy surrounding police misconduct in Hawaii.
The series found that once a week on average a Honolulu police officer is suspended or discharged for misconduct. The series also found that many police officers who have committed serious misconduct — including criminal convictions — keep their badges due in large part to union grievance procedures.
Blanketing the whole disciplinary process, however, is a lack of transparency that leaves citizens guessing as to whether bad cops are properly punished for their misdeeds.
For all public employees except cops, the UIPA requires the disclosure of misconduct information after a suspension or a discharge. But in the 1990s, SHOPO was successful in getting the Legislature to carve out an exemption for suspended police officers. In a separate case, the Hawaii Supreme Court later ruled that police disciplinary records regarding officer misconduct should be public.
Neither Alapa or Devens returned phone calls seeking comment on their motion.