Hawaii lawmakers passed a bill out of conference committee Wednesday that will force county police departments to disclose more information about officers who get in trouble for misconduct.
If signed into law, Senate Bill 2591 will force police chiefs to tell the Legislature how many officers were suspended or fired in a given year, and whether the disciplinary action resulted in criminal charges or was still subject to a union appeal.
Any disciplinary action that is overturned will require police chiefs to include an explanation as to why the punishment was revoked. This should also be the case if a disciplined officer resigned before the punishment was finalized.
“This will be one of our positive measures that we pass this session in terms of transparency and open government,” said Sen. Will Espero. “It’s a big step and there’s more to do, but this is certainly a win.”
Espero introduced SB 2591 in response to Civil Beat’s series In The Name Of The Law, which examined the secrecy and lack of public accountability surrounding police misconduct.
A key component of that series involved an analysis of annual misconduct reports each county police department is required to submit to the Legislature. Civil Beat found that about once a week on average a Honolulu police officer is suspended or discharged for breaking the law or violating policy.
But the reports provided little detail about the type of misconduct that is actually taking place in a department. Important details, such as an officer’s name or whether they were prosecuted for a crime, are not included.
That’s because the state’s police union was successful in convincing lawmakers in 1995 to carve out an exemption in the Hawaii public records law that allows departments to withhold information about suspended cops. Fired officers, however, are not afforded this shield and are subject to having details about their misconduct released.
SB 2591 does not require police agencies to release suspended officers records.
However, a Hawaii Circuit Court judge recently ruled that suspended officers files must be disclosed. That case has been appealed by the union.
All other public employees who are suspended or fired — whether they’re a teacher or a prison guard — are subject to information about their misconduct being released.
Another important component of SB 2591 relates to how long police departments must hold onto an officers disciplinary records.
SB 2591 requires departments to hold onto an officer’s disciplinary records for at least 18 months after a final disciplinary action is recorded in an annual report.
That particular provision comes from legislation that died before making it to conference committee. House Bill 1812 — introduced by Rep. Karl Rhoads — was a companion piece to SB 2591 and was identical in nearly every way.
Rhoads, however, amended the bill to include more time for lawmakers and the public to get access to a fired officer’s disciplinary file to provide more oversight. He also suggested changing the public records law to get rid of the exemption that protected suspended cops from having details about their misconduct released.
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and Honolulu Police Department vigorously opposed Rhoads’ amended HB 1812 while journalists and good government groups, including the Media Council Hawaii, the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and state Office of Information Practices all supported it.
HB 1812 passed both chambers, but died before making it through conference committee.
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center, said HB 1812 was definitely a stronger bill due to the changes it sought in the public records law.
But he also noted that SB 2591 was less controversial and didn’t get as much pushback from SHOPO, which made its presence known in the halls of the State Capitol.
“The original purpose of (SB 2591) was to make things better in terms of the annual disclosures,” Black said. “Anything that’s going to make police misconduct a more informed issue with the public is a good thing no matter what.”
SB 2591 also includes a provision that says fired police officers’ disciplinary files will not be made available until 90 days after disciplinary action becomes final.
Current law requires the information to be released after 30 days.