Last year, a Honolulu police officer repeatedly texted and called an ex-girlfriend even though she had already told him to stop.
The Honolulu Police Department determined that to be criminal behavior — it’s unclear exactly why — and the officer was suspended from work for one day.
Another officer was supposed to investigate an assault that occurred during a local sporting event. Some of the individuals involved were off-duty cops.
But HPD says the investigating officer failed to properly investigate. The punishment: a day-and-half without pay.
Many more officers were forced to take time off in 2013, sometimes for far more serious offenses. Two were fired. Officers threatened citizens, fought with coworkers, forged signatures and crashed into cars while driving under the influence.
In all, 35 Honolulu Police Department officers were suspended or discharged for misconduct in 2013, according to the department’s latest annual report that county police agencies are required to file with the Legislature.
That’s more than in 2012, when 30 officers were punished for 35 incidents of misconduct.
The annual misconduct reports provide a glimpse into the police disciplinary process, but little else. Each incident is described in only a couple of sentences. No names, dates or other relevant information — such as if an officer is a repeat offender — is provided.
It’s part of an underlying problem in Hawaii’s public records law. Police officers are treated differently than other public employees when it comes to suspensions.
Details about an officer’s misconduct are kept secret even though any other civil servant who gets in trouble — whether a University of Hawaii professor or a court clerk — can expect to have their misconduct aired publicly.
The only time an officer’s disciplinary records become public is when that individual is fired. And even then the only information that’s released is related to the misconduct that resulted in the termination.
Civil Beat explored the lack of transparency and whether the public is being well-served by it in a five-part investigative series, In The Name Of The Law. Civil Beat has filed a lawsuit seeking to gain access to the records of 12 Honolulu officers suspended for egregious behavior.
And lawmakers say they plan to introduce several pieces of legislation this session that aim to require more disclosure and hold Hawaii’s police officers more accountable.
Disciplining Honolulu’s Police
Only two officers lost their jobs for misconduct in 2013, according to the new report to the Legislature.
One officer was terminated after failing a drug test. The other was fired for transporting a juvenile runaway without permission and lying to investigators about the incident. That same officer also altered another officer’s name and badge number in a police logbook and falsified mileage records.
Civil Beat asked HPD for the names and disciplinary files of these officers but has yet to receive a response. The department also has not yet responded to a request for an interview about the annual police misconduct report.
Most officers — 28 of them — received suspensions of fewer than 10 days. A majority of those officers were suspended for one day without pay for offenses ranging from participating in unauthorized funeral escorts and harassment to threatening citizens and fighting during domestic disputes.
An officer who was suspended for 20 days was arrested for possession of marijuana and driving under the influence. He or she was off duty and playing in a sports tournament. The summary doesn’t say whether charges were filed or if the officer faces prosecution.
One cop tried to obtain password and login information of other officers as a means to take advantage of special duty assignments that result in more pay for officers. That officer who was suspended for 10 days. Another officer who helped in the scheme was suspended for three days.
Is More Transparency Coming?
The lack of detail in the annual reports is likely to bring about new legislation that aims to make Hawaii’s police officers more accountable for their actions.
Last year, Sen. Les Ihara introduced a bill that would have required the four county police departments to include more information about the nature of the misconduct beyond what is currently provided.
Ihara also wanted to clean up a technical detail so that the reports covered the entire calendar year. As it stands now the reports must be submitted to the Legislature no more than 20 days before the session starts, which sometimes leaves a couple week gap in the reporting period.
Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee, is also looking at various measures to increase oversight of the state’s police forces. He is exploring the creation of a new statewide entity that would license officers, both at the county and state level, similar to the way doctors, lawyers and other professionals, such as elevator mechanics, are licensed in the state.
Espero has said this new program, which exists in all other states besides Hawaii, would add another layer of accountability for police. Most states that license police officers also have the ability to revoke those licenses if an officer gets into trouble for serious misconduct.
In addition to the proposals, Civil Beat has filed a lawsuit against the City and County of Honolulu and HPD over the release of disciplinary records for 12 officers who were suspended for serious misconduct, including criminal acts.
Currently, county police departments withhold that information, citing privacy concerns of the officers. But Civil Beat has argued that the information is public under the state’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act.
Both the city and HPD have disagreed with that premise in court papers. They argue that information about the misconduct of suspended officers is not public and also would be considered an invasion of their privacy.
The state police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, is also intervening in the case. Attorneys for SHOPO have argued that they have a right to defend the individuals officers’ privacy interests because the city and HPD might not do it with the same veracity.