A bill that would allow Hawaii lawmakers and citizens to better scrutinize police officer misconduct in annual reports to the Legislature cleared its first hurdle Tuesday.
But there were also glimpses of possible future barriers to the measure, particularly from the state’s powerful police union.
The Senate Public Safety Committee passed Senate Bill 2591 late Tuesday afternoon 3-1, with Republican Sen. Sam Slom the only dissenting voice.
No discussion took place during the hearing, although the State of Hawaii Police Organization of Police Officers submitted vague written testimony that said it opposed the measure “in part.”
Slom told Civil Beat after the hearing that he had philosophical problems with the bill, saying it was too narrowly focused on annual reports to the Legislature. Instead, Slom said the best approach would be to revisit the law that allows county police officers to keep their disciplinary files secret.
“My whole point is I certainly think that there should be transparency … about misconduct,” Slom said. “(But) I don’t know what information coming to the Legislature is going to do. We ask for reports all the time. We don’t follow up on them and we don’t do oversight.”
Now the bill will move on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Clayton Hee.
Senate Bill 2591 seeks to make the four county police chiefs disclose more information about officer misconduct in their annual reports to the Legislature.
Those reports currently list the number of officers who have been suspended or discharged for misconduct along with a short description of what they did to bring about disciplinary action.
The reports were required in the mid-1990s after the Legislature decided to exempt suspended police officers from having to reveal information about their misdeeds. All other public employees in Hawaii must disclose misconduct that results in suspension or discharge.
But many, including Sen. Will Espero, who introduced SB 2591, have said the annual summaries are too vague.
No officers are named — even those who have been discharged — and details of the misconduct are rarely provided beyond a one or two sentence description that doesn’t always reflect what happened.
For instance, one Honolulu police officer who was fired in 2011 for ignoring his radio and conducting “personal business while on duty” had actually been under investigation for rape. But the police department didn’t include that detail in its report. The information only came out after Civil Beat obtained the records under a state public records request.
While SB 2591 won’t make public every detail about misconduct involving police officers it would provide at least some context for the offenses.
Perhaps most importantly, it would force police chiefs to indicate which offenses could be punishable as crimes and whether those incidents were forwarded to prosecutors.
The bill would also require departments to indicate which offenses involved the same officer, thereby indicating who might be a repeat offender in a given year.
Another provision would force departments to note which disciplinary actions were final and which ones were still subject to union grievance procedures.
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, submitted written testimony supporting SB 2591. He said the bill will “validate the trust” citizens have in county police departments by requiring officers to live up to a higher standard of accountability than what is currently required, at least as it relates to criminal conduct.
“No agency should hide from public scrutiny and oversight when an employee commits a crime, especially a law enforcement agency,” Black wrote.
He added: “Open and public discussion of how county police departments handle criminal conduct by police officers is critical to public confidence in law enforcement and the administration of our criminal justice system.”
Black also supported a provision in the bill that would require departments to maintain the records of fired police officers for at least six months after an annual report is released.
Records are often destroyed before the public even knows they exist. Civil Beat requested the disciplinary files of two officers who were listed as being discharged in the Dec. 20, 2013 report to the Legislature. Even though the request was made on Jan. 9, HPD said one of of the files had already been destroyed.
Black said this “deprived” both the public and the Legislature of any chance to learn more about the circumstances surrounding that incident.
Black is currently representing Civil Beat in a lawsuit against the city and the Honolulu Police Department to reveal more details about 12 officers who were suspended for serious misconduct.
The city and HPD have withheld the records citing privacy concerns of the officers and an exemption in the state’s public records law that says the identities of suspended cops are confidential.
Civil Beat has challenged that assertion on the grounds that the public interest in knowing more about those officers’ misconduct outweighs any right to privacy those officers might have.
Each of the 12 officers in question was suspended for more than 20 days, some for acts of violence against citizens, drunken driving and lying to investigators.
SHOPO has joined the city and HPD in opposing Civil Beat’s demand for the records.
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