Editor’s note:A previous version of this story included information about Honolulu police officer Christopher Caswell, who department officials had said failed a drug test and was fired as a result. After the article was published, HPD officials corrected themselves and said Caswell had, in fact, not been fired, but that he was no longer with the force. The story has been updated to reflect this change.
Honolulu police officer Ethan Ferguson was fired in 2013 after he falsified records and lied to investigators about transporting a female runaway, who was underage.
But as with much of the misconduct that takes place within the ranks of Hawaii’s police departments little has been revealed about what exactly Ferguson did to get stripped of his badge.
Part of the problem is that Honolulu Police Department rules related to records retention require officials to purge police disciplinary files 30 months after launching an internal investigation.
The rule helps shield police misconduct from public view, especially considering union grievance proceedings can extend for months or even years after an investigation into officer misconduct begins. Police departments file annual summaries of misconduct with the Legislature but the incident doesn’t make the list until grievance procedures are done and the case has been disposed of, either through suspension or discharge.
After viewing the Honolulu Police department summary filed with the Legislature in December, Civil Beat requested Ferguson’s disciplinary file.
Civil Beat has been tracking police misconduct, first through its investigative series, In The Name Of The Law, which analyzed police misconduct and the secrecy surrounding it, and in numerous follow-up stories.
But HPD Spokeswoman Michelle Yu said her agency has already destroyed Ferguson’s file because of the records retention schedule.
Yu said HPD would not comment on the disciplinary actions taken against Ferguson. His written record — or what’s left of it — is the only information available from HPD about the circumstances surrounding his termination.
Brian Black, executive director for the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, hopes new legislation will help address the issues related to HPD’s record retention schedule.
That bill — introduced by Sen. Will Espero — aims to make more information available about police disciplinary actions as well as require county police agencies to maintain fired officers’ disciplinary files for six months after the annual legislative summaries are filed.
Black said the current rules related to records retention show a “deficiency” in the law, and the fact that HPD had already purged Ferguson’s file “deprived not only the public, but the Legislature of any opportunity to learn more about an incident that was first disclosed less than a month prior.”
That bill is still working its way through the Legislature, passing its first committee hearing on Feb. 4. It now must go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Clayton Hee.
The only testimony in opposition to the proposal comes from the statewide police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
SHOPO President Tenari Ma’afala said in written testimony that the union opposes parts of the bill because requiring the disclosure of any more details about misconduct would could “prematurely and unfairly identify the officer.”
Ma’afala, however, did not oppose extending the window on the records retention schedule in his testimony.