On Jan. 15, 2013, U.S. Army Pfc. Gregory Gordon was boxed in, nowhere to go.
But the 22-year-old Schofield Barracks soldier wasn’t on the battlefields of Afghanistan, where his family says he developed post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Instead, he was in a black Dodge Ram, surrounded by 10 Honolulu police cruisers on the outskirts of Waikiki, guns pointed in his direction.
Gordon died that night, shot by police officers in an encounter that started when he drove the wrong way down a one-way street.
As his father asked a KITV reporter: “Why open fire?”
More than a year later, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro has attempted to answer that question, explaining for the first time last week why he believed the shooting was justified.
But the case still raises questions about the lack of transparency regarding what happens after officer-involved shootings in Hawaii, as well as other police incidents that result in a suspect’s death.
On May 15, after Civil Beat asked about the Gordon case, Kaneshiro issued a two-page memo providing a brief description of the events that led up to the early morning shooting.
The document provides a broad overview of what transpired before two officers shot and killed Gordon, and is meant to explain why Kaneshiro did not pursue criminal charges against the officers.
Much of it rehashes what has already been reported in the media, but it also addresses the actions of officers before they pulled the trigger.
The document says Gordon was shot after he “repeatedly drove a full-sized pickup truck at high speed toward police officers on foot and inside police vehicles that had converged on the truck on Ala Wai Boulevard.”
According to the memo, Gordon aimed his Dodge Ram at foot patrol officers who were trying to stop him for driving the wrong way on Nahua Street and jumping a curb.
One of the officers fired at Gordon’s truck, but did not hit the soldier as he drove away. Police caught up with Gordon on Ala Wai Boulevard, the memo says, where he hit two parked cars and a light pole.
“Officers on foot approached and ordered Gordon to turn off the engine and get out of the truck,” the document says. “Instead, Gordon revved the engine, and with tires burning rubber, drove forward and back, smashing into patrol cars occupied by officers.”
The memo says the impacts crumpled the hood of one vehicle, deployed the airbags of another and injured one officer.
While he was stopped, two officers approached Gordon’s truck and shot him four times, with one bullet piercing his heart and lungs. The other three bullet wounds were not life-threatening.
Kaneshiro’s memo notes that Gordon’s blood-alcohol level was 2.5 times above the legal limit for driving under the influence. The prosecuting attorney also made clear that the officers who killed him were well within the scope of their duties.
“Prosecutors determined that the officers were justified in their use of deadly force and that they employed deadly force to protect themselves and others in accordance with Hawaii Revised Statutes,” the memo says.
“The officers who fired their weapons acted within the law as Gordon’s actions posed an immediate and present danger to the lives of the officers on foot and inside cars that were being rammed and because Gordon would not comply with repeated commands to stop the vehicle.”
The memo doesn’t mention a replica handgun authorities said they found in Gordon’s truck, how many times officers fired shots or whether they followed proper safety procedures.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro believes his office should release more detail about officer involved shootings, but feels stymied by current laws.
While it establishes that the prosecuting attorney considered the shooting justified, the memo sheds little new light on the headline-grabbing incident. The Honolulu Police Department has also been quiet.
After the shooting, four officers were placed on administrative leave while the department conducted its internal investigation, which is common practice. Department officials said at the time it appeared those officers had all followed proper protocol.
Since then, HPD has released no salient details about the shooting investigation or its findings. All that’s known is that the four officers have all gone back to work.
While HPD did not disclose the names of the officers involved, the department awarded Certificates of Merit in January of this year to Lt. David Yomes and Officer Blake Arita for “stopping a Waikiki driver who struck several vehicles and almost hit an officer last January.”
HPD Spokeswoman Michelle Yu said she couldn’t comment about the internal review, only saying that it was completed in October and that no officers lost their jobs.
“We can’t comment on disciplinary action,” Yu said. “But two of the officers were recognized recently by the department.”
In Hawaii, police officers are shielded from having any details from their disciplinary files revealed unless they are terminated, something that has been challenged in court.
Civil Beat has submitted a public records request to HPD for the internal reports related to Gordon’s death, but has yet to receive a response.
The most detailed account of the shooting that’s been made public is Kaneshiro’s memo, and the prosecutor only recently decided to release that.
Kaneshiro’s office initially refused Civil Beat’s request to release its findings on the Gordon case, saying that doing so would be a violation of state laws pertaining to “non-conviction data.”
The rationale was that since there were no criminal charges brought against the officers involved, the prosecutorial review was confidential.
Kaneshiro had even asked the city’s attorneys for an opinion on the matter, and in a May 7 statement to Civil Beat he said the attorneys agreed that the details of the shooting review should be withheld.
“We recognize that there is greater interest in matters involving police officers — and acknowledge the importance of public trust in law enforcement, especially when officers employ deadly force — the statutes provide no exceptions,” Kaneshiro said. “We are discussing ways to address the issue without violating the law.”
Less than a week later — and after continued requests from Civil Beat for more information — Kaneshiro changed his mind.
He decided to release a summary of a memo he sent to HPD Police Chief Louis Kealoha that explained why he was not pressing charges in the case. The memo released May 15 was a condensed version of that letter.
Dave Koga, a spokesman for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, explained that the statutes regarding non-conviction data also provide “some latitude when it comes to personal privacy and public interest.”
He said in an email that this allowed the office to develop a new policy about releasing information about suspects killed by the police.
“Keith believes deeply in the importance of public trust in law enforcement, especially when police officer(s) use deadly force,” Koga said, adding that the office will now “respond to media requests in cases resulting in death in which officers are not charged.”
“There will be something of a balancing act — some responses may contain more detail than others — but every effort will be made to provide as much information as possible in a clear and concise manner while also abiding by the laws covering disclosure,” he said.
This policy will bring Honolulu in line with other jurisdictions in Hawaii, such as Kauai, where Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar recently issued a press release about his review of an officer-involved shooting last August.
While the press release was only a single page, it provided many of the same details as Kaneshiro’s review of the Gordon shooting.
The release stated that a gun-wielding suspect, Mason Saio, had refused to drop his weapon and also pointed a loaded shotgun at officers, who then opened fire.
Kollar told Civil Beat the officers were acting in self defense in that situation and that it was important for the public to know why he wasn’t pressing charges.
“We understand that in the course of law enforcement there’s information that the public would want to know about but we can’t release it,” Kollar said. “(But) we do what we do because we want to be transparent as much as possible.”
Police officials don’t release the names of officers involved in shootings.
Not everyone is convinced the system adequately holds police officers publicly accountable when they kill or injure someone.
Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz has sued Hawaii’s police agencies several times over the years for civil rights violations and use of force. He recently settled a case with HPD in which his client, a convicted rapist, was allegedly beaten by several police officers during a traffic stop.
Seitz knows how difficult it is to get HPD’s internal investigative reports — often needing a judge’s order to do so.
“The public is left in the dark deliberately,” Seitz said. “They basically protect themselves by labeling these cases as personnel matters.”
Hawaii is hardly a shining example of transparency when it comes to police records. The Legislature has protected police officers from having to disclose their names and details about their misconduct unless they are fired. Lawmakers this year had the chance to end this exemption — which is specifically tied to suspended officers — but declined the opportunity.
Police shootings seem to follow a similar trend. Names of officers are kept secret, and little else is disclosed about incidents that result in a suspect’s death.
The medical examiner’s office found that Torres died due to “mechanical asphyxia during police restraint due to or as a consequence of cocaine-induced delirium.”
Kaneshiro’s office declined to press charges in that case, and no reports were publicly released. HPD officials have also refused to comment on the specifics of the case, only saying that the investigation has been closed.
The most information that was made publicly available was when Torres’ sister filed a lawsuit against the police officers who were involved in his death.
Every state has its own protocols for how it handles disclosure of use of force incidents, according to Lou Reiter, a retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief who is now a consultant for police agencies.
“The problem is there is no consistency around the country at all,” Reiter said. “When dealing with police departments the confidentiality of records runs the gamut.”
But one thing is clear: Hawaii lags behind when it comes to releasing details about police shootings.
For example, Denver’s district attorney reviews every officer-involved shooting and issues a report that is publicly available on the agency’s website.
Coupled with that investigation is an additional review by the city’s manager of safety, who oversees several public safety departments including police and fire.
Reports issued by these agencies can be more than a dozen pages and include officer names as well as detailed legal reasoning for why charges are not filed.
Even in California — a state Reiter considers less transparent than most — the LAPD posts the results of its shooting investigations on its website. Officer names are not included, although the Los Angeles Times has challenged that and the California Supreme Court has indicated that practice could end.
As Reiter notes, transparency helps when it comes to releasing information about officer-involved shootings.
“Most prosecutors are trying to cover their rear end,” Reiter said. “The district attorney will normally issue a report if they’re going to decline prosecution because they want to lay out the rationale and the reasoning for why they’re doing that.”
Some law enforcement agencies take a similar approach when it comes to internal reviews that might result in administrative action.
In Seattle — where the U.S. Department of Justice has cracked down on the use of force by police officers — internal reviews of shootings are made public.
Seattle Police Department Public Information Officer Patrick Michaud said his agency understands that force is sometimes a necessary part of the job, and that citizens should know how it’s being used and whether it’s being exerted properly.
“Everything we have is releasable,” Michaud said. “We’re a public entity. If you want something, file a public information request and we’ll get you the information no questions asked … We’re not in the business of hiding what we do.”