When the Honolulu City Council approved a $1.4 million settlement last month in the death of Aaron Torres, it was the largest payout in recent history involving the police department or its officers.

But the department has paid out many millions more over the past 11 years, according to records obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request.

In fact, records show the city settled nearly 100 cases that involve the police department and its officers from Jan. 1, 2003, to May 1, 2014.

The total cost to taxpayers was about $5.7 million.

HPD cars sirens PF

A line of Honolulu police cruisers.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That figure does not include the thousands of hours of attorney time that were spent litigating those cases on behalf of the city, which could tack on millions of dollars more.

The Biggest Payouts

The most expensive settlements to taxpayers have involved the use of force, particularly those resulting in severe injury or death.

That was the case in the Torres lawsuit, which was filed after he suffocated while three officers sat on him during an arrest in February 2012, court records state.

The city also had to pay out $400,000 to the family of Robert Rapoza Jr. in 2003 after an incident in which an officer was accused of beating him with a broken broomstick while in custody in 1996.

That same officer, David Chun, later pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in another inmate assault in 1995.

A second 2003 settlement agreement saw the city pay out $575,000 to Christopher Evangelista after part of his leg was blown off by an officer’s shotgun blast.

According to Evangelista’s attorney, Jerel Fonseca, his client had been sleeping at a friend’s place when the police entered the home looking for a suspect who had allegedly flashed a gun at a security guard in Pearlridge.

The case never went to trial, which Fonseca took as a sign that the city didn’t have a good enough argument to present to jurors. And while he hasn’t handled any HPD cases since, he said the high number of settlements over the years can hint at underlying issues within the department.

“It would indicate that training needs to be upgraded or updated, especially if you have that many lawsuits with that many claims being settled,” Fonseca said. “The Corporation Counsel wouldn’t settle them unless they saw that there was a liability with them actually going to trial.”

Actually, it’s not uncommon for a municipality to settle certain cases when it becomes cheaper than going to trial. City attorneys did not return calls seeking comment this week.

HPD Spokeswoman Teresa Bell said in an email that the department doesn’t comment on legal settlements, but added that “every incident is taken seriously, and we regularly review our training, policies, procedures and officers’ conduct.”

Disciplinary Measures Unknown

The city has come under scrutiny lately over how much it has paid out in legal settlements. On May 7, the Honolulu City Council approved $3.7 million in payouts to those who had been harmed in one way or another by the city or its employees.

These settlements included several related to HPD, including one in which police mistakenly raided someone’s house because they thought bamboo was marijuana. The city also agreed to pay out $950,000 to Qing Yu Chen, who was hit by an officer’s vehicle while in a crosswalk.

Other city employees are costing taxpayers money too. For instance, the council also approved a $1.25 million settlement for a woman who had her foot run over by a garbage truck driver.

What’s not known is whether any city employees involved in these settlements were disciplined for their conduct or received any remedial training.

The city has refused to release the disciplinary files of police officers who have been suspended for misconduct.

And while this sort of information is considered public for all other city employees, union grievance procedures can delay the release of those details for several years.

Civil Beat has also found that employee disciplinary records are destroyed every couple years or so due to records retention policies.

It all adds up to the public being left largely in the dark about what the city is doing to curb future liability.


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