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On Sept. 23, 2011, Honolulu police officer James Easley was fired after a woman accused him of raping her on the hood of his patrol car.
But how the Honolulu Police Department was handling the case was never made public and because he was never charged with a crime, no court record existed.
The only public reference to the incident was a line in an annual report to the Legislature that said an officer had been fired for not answering his radio and for conducting “personal business while on duty.” He was not named and no other details were provided.
Now, more than two years after Easley’s termination some details are being made public. But that is only after Civil Beat paid hundreds of dollars to the Honolulu Police Department for records. And it took the agency a year to provide them.
Easley’s case illustrates how difficult it is for the public to check on police misconduct and whether police officials are effectively addressing it, including removing bad cops from the street.
But some lawmakers hope to change that situation. They have submitted companion bills in the House and Senate that would require more detailed disclosure of police disciplinary records, although the bills maintain an exemption in Hawaii’s public records law that protects cops from having to reveal details of most disciplinary actions. All other public employees are required by law to disclose information relating to suspensions and terminations.
Civil Beat has been examining the public’s ability to check up on police misconduct in its investigative series, “In the Name of the Law and numerous follow-up stories. In January 2013, we asked for the files on Easley and two other HPD officers who had been terminated. The files of discharged cops are public record under the law, but often are destroyed before the public knows a discharge has taken place and can access the records.
Civil Beat was told the records would cost more than $2,000 and take 80 hours to find, process and remove any material the department did not think should be made public.
Last month — nearly a year later — HPD finally turned over the last of the files, including 189 heavily redacted pages on James Easley. One file on former Officer Michael Tarmoun who was convicted of sexual assault and fled to Morocco, and parts of a file on Shayne Souza, discharged for smoking pot in Las Vegas, were released in varying stages last year. The final cost for the three files: $936.25.
Easley did not respond to requests for an interview for this story made through a family friend.
And the public disciplinary record contains no statement from him or anything that tells his side of what happened the night he answered a domestic dispute call and ended up taking the alleged female victim away in his patrol car.
Easley’s file — as well as those of the other officers — still leaves many questions unanswered about how the disciplinary process plays out and whether it is effective in combating police corruption. The records suggest that officers are treated differently, sometimes because of the way the union grievance process is handled.
Large sections of Easley’s file have been redacted, and the police department refuses to talk about its internal investigation.
Among the contents are a termination letter from Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, a summary of the department’s investigation, transcripts of an interview with the alleged victim and letters of support from HPD officers as well as a former prostitute who said Easley helped get her off the streets.
Missing or blacked out are the names of witnesses and police officers who were interviewed during the investigation.
There is no indication whether the case was referred to the prosecuting attorney’s office, and the prosecutor’s office won’t say. According to the documents, the investigation appears to have concluded when investigators could no longer get in touch with the woman, whose husband was in the military.
The letter from Kealoha informs Easley he is being terminated for leaving his assigned district without notifying dispatchers, failing to respond to calls and having sexual relations while on duty. But the rape allegation was never resolved.
While Easley’s file provides more insight into why the officer was let go, the information wasn’t made available until long after the incident occurred and disciplinary action taken. The story turned out to be much different than what was provided in the brief summary to the Legislature. And it’s hard to tell if he was treated fairly during the investigation and disciplinary process.
Lawmakers Want More Disclosure
An exemption in Hawaii’s public records law shields police misconduct from public view thanks in part to a 1995 decision by the Legislature at the urging of the state’s politically influential police union.
The only information on disciplinary action comes in an annual report filed with the Legislature that provides little detail about officer misconduct. Officers names are omitted and each incident of wrongdoing is summarized in one or two sentences that, as illustrated by Easley’s case, doesn’t begin to tell what actually happened.
But some state lawmakers now say it’s time to tackle the lack of transparency.
Rhoads said it’s a “delicate” matter, but also one that needs to be explored.
“It’s important to know as much information as we can about police misconduct,” Rhoads told Civil Beat. “They’re the ones who enforce the laws and if they’re breaking the laws we need to know about it.”
Espero echoed Rhoads, adding that the bills could be the first step in opening up police misconduct to more public scrutiny.
“This measure is intended to provide transparency,” Espero said. “It allows us to track and see to what extent there are problems and how those problems are being resolved.”
The bills would require departments to clarify whether each disciplinary action is final, and whether any of the officers involved committed more than one act of wrongdoing in a given year.
Departments would also have to state whether an incident constitutes a crime and what, if anything, the agency did to pursue charges. This includes reporting if the department notified the prosecuting attorney’s office.
The bills would also force police departments to retain disciplinary files for at least six months after the annual reports are due to the Legislature. Under current rules, departments regularly purge disciplinary files before the Legislature is notified that an incident of misconduct has occurred.
For instance, HPD has already destroyed the file of one of the police officers it reported was discharged in its 2013 legislative summary.
Last Year’s Effort Died in Committee
Espero and Rhoads are picking up where Sen. Les Ihara left off in the 2013. Ihara had introduced a measure that would force departments to provide more detail about police misconduct.
Ihara said he backs the latest measure working its way through the Legislature, although he admits it seeks modest changes in light of the 1995 exemption that lets suspended police officers remain anonymous no matter how serious their misconduct.
It’s time to revisit that law, Ihara said.
In fact, he was one of the lawmakers to vote for it in the first place.
“We passed the law with the intent of reviewing it again based on the information provided to us,” Ihara said. “There’s a balancing of the public interest versus the private interest. I think there’s more information that could be provided that does not breach anyone’s privacy. The information that we’ve been getting is a little too general in order to be useful.”