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Hawaii lawmakers are grappling with ways to improve police transparency and accountability in light of a high-profile domestic violence case that has outraged the public and led to calls for better oversight.
On Tuesday, more than a dozen legislators heard testimony from top ranking police officials, domestic violence advocates and other experts about domestic violence issues and, in particular, how the Honolulu Police Department handles cases both within its ranks and when dealing with victims.
The hearing stemmed from lawmakers’ concerns over a Sept. 8 surveillance video showing Honolulu Police Sgt. Darren Cachola repeatedly striking his girlfriend inside a Waipahu restaurant. Responding officers did not make an arrest or file a report.
Honolulu Police Chief Kealoha told lawmakers Tuesday the Cachola case has been referred to the prosecutor’s office for an independent review. But he said HPD’s own investigators were unable to prove criminal wrongdoing.
Cachola’s girlfriend has said the two were simply play fighting in the video. Kealoha said witnesses also were reluctant to talk after the video went viral.
“Whenever you speak to suspects or witnesses you have to develop a relationship with them,” Kealoha explained. “As soon as this case erupted it could have discouraged them from coming forward.”
But on Tuesday lawmakers had more on their minds that simply ensuring that Cachola and the other officers involved in that incident are held accountable for their actions. They also want to see changes to Honolulu Police Department policies and procedures as it relates to domestic violence and internal oversight.
“I think I can say without equivocation that this is going to be the focus of caucus activity this year,” said Sen. Roz Baker, one of several women lawmakers who has been pushing the police department for response. “We thought we made some good strides, but obviously we have some work we’ve got to do.”
For example, Baker said she’d like to see an independent investigative committee that’s not affiliated with the police department be created to look at allegations of misconduct and provide oversight.
Other lawmakers said they want police to work closely with the domestic violence organizations to improve how officers respond to abuse allegations and to reduce the number of complaints they receive from victims who say they’ve been ignored or urged not to file a report.
This could also include mandating more training for police officers, who under HPD rules receive about an hour of training each year on how to respond to domestic violence complaints.
“What really, I think is important is that we have an incident report on every DV call even if it’s not initially called in that way,” Baker said. “I’m wondering short of a legislative mandate what will it take to get the department to immediately require an incident report on anything that looks, feels, smells and tastes like domestic violence?”
Much of the hearing, which was a joint meeting of the House and Senate public safety committees, focused on HPD’s policies for handling domestic violence.
There have been several complaints over the weeks that officers at HPD do not take domestic violence seriously, and advocates say that the problem can be exacerbated when the suspect has ties to the department.
Loretta Sheehan, an attorney who has prosecuted domestic violence cases as a state and federal prosecutor, told lawmakers that there are rules in place, but that the laws aren’t properly enforced.
Specifically, she said she’d like to see HPD do a better job of documenting domestic violence cases. This includes generating reports for every instance of suspected partner abuse.
Sheehan, who’s with the Domestic Violence Action Center, said police departments should invest in new technology that’s used by other police jurisdictions, such as body cameras, that can record interactions with the public.
“The problem isn’t the laws,” she said. “The problem is how the laws are being enforced.”
Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha received most of the legislative attention. Flanked as he often is by Deputy Chiefs Marie McCauley and Dave Kajihiro, Kealoha fielded numerous questions from the panel.
The lawmakers pressed Kealoha on how his department handles domestic violence cases, and questioned whether the policies stack up with national best practices.
Kealoha conceded that his department needs to improve its domestic violence policies as well as become more transparent when it comes to how it handles its business, something he’s been acknowledging frequently in the past few weeks.
“No organization is perfect,” Kealoha told lawmakers. “But we’re a good police department.”
The chief had planned to show lawmakers the entire video of the fight between Cachola and his girlfriend. But some lawmakers, primarily Sen. Will Espero, had concerns about how that might influence the possible criminal case against Cachola.
Kealoha and his deputies also told lawmakers that the department has a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to domestic violence and other serious offenses, such as drugs or driving under the influence.
But the department’s record on disciplining officers for domestic violence was called into question by Sen. Laura Thielen and others who asked about lax enforcement of abuse cases.
Civil Beat has reported that since 2000 at least 26 officers have been disciplined for domestic violence-related misconduct. But not a single one has been successfully discharged and in some cases the suspension was for just a single day.
Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of domestic violence of owning or possessing a gun.
Several lawmakers latched onto this point when questioning Kealoha about his department’s disciplinary process, with Senate President Donna Mercado Kim saying the punishment against officers seems to be “minimal.”
“If you’re going to say it’s zero tolerance then it needs to be zero tolerance,” Kim said. “If the top brass is not going to hold firm on this then you can’t expect the officers to follow suit.”
Kealoha said the many of the domestic violence cases that resulted in disciplinary action were referred for prosecution but that charges were either never filed or were reduced to lesser crimes. The suspensions were the result of administrative investigations, he said, and were not tied to the prosecutor’s actions.
After the hearing Kealoha acknowledged discipline is subject to a collective bargaining agreement with the police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers. That contract dictates a disciplinary grievance procedure that through arbitration can allow a fired officer to get their job back.
“It’s a really huge and really complex system,” Kealoha said. “What you see in the end isn’t always what we want.”
Possibilities discussed Tuesday for improving accountability within the police department included the creation of an independent review board that would examine policy and provide oversight.
The Honolulu Police Commission is already in place to oversee the department but the agency is largely ineffective at identifying systemic problems within the police force.
For example, the commission only handles citizen complaints about officer conduct made by the public. The commission is not typically involved in the more serious misconduct handled internally by the department.
Aaron Hunger, a criminal justice instructor at Remington College and a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii, told lawmakers it’s important to have an independent committee analyze the department’s current protocols, especially in light of the Cachola case.
“This perception that the police take care of their own builds the animosity that becomes the accusations that we have before us and have been brought to the public’s attention through our popular, mass and social media,” Hunger said. “Although many have been attempting to examine police policy, I and many others have found that the Honolulu Police Department is guarded over all of the information it releases, to the point of appearing nontransparent.”
An independent review board that works with the department, the police commission and lawmakers could go a long way toward restoring public trust, he said.
It could also result in better policing practices that are used in other parts of the country that would, he said, “build a cohesive, transparent, symbiotic relationship between the community and the police.”