Reforms are under way to improve the Honolulu Police Department’s handling of domestic violence cases, top officials told City Council members during a Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday.

The department is looking to expand its domestic violence training curriculum for new recruits and current officers, who today only receive an hour a year on the topic after graduating from the academy.

Police officials also said they need to improve the culture inside the department to ensure officers aren’t afraid to come forward when they see a colleague break protocol or commit a crime.

Honolulu City Council HPD hearing

Honolulu City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, in red, questions top HPD officials during a hearing at Honolulu Hale.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

“Internally, what we’re going to do is put a little emphasis on the employee reporting,” said HPD Maj. Lester Hite, who heads the Criminal Investigation Division. “So what does an employee need to speak up? They need safety and security. They don’t want to feel hazed or left out. And this is all part of courage and leadership.”

Hite was one of several high-ranking officials to attend Tuesday’s hearing. He testified alongside Police Chief Louis Kealoha, Maj. Clyde Ho, who heads the department’s internal affairs division, and Lt. Brian Look, who is charged with training officers on how to handle domestic violence

“We want to be as transparent as we can, but everybody has a different definition of what transparency means.” — Police Chief Louis Kealoha

They were on hand to address the ongoing controversy surrounding HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola, who last month was caught on surveillance video repeatedly striking his girlfriend.

Cachola was never charged with a crime, and his girlfriend said publicly that the two were only play-fighting. But the case ignited debate about how HPD responds to domestic violence calls, and raised questions about whether the responding officers tried to cover it up.

Cachola is currently under administrative investigation, as are the officers who responded to the incident.

‘A Difficult Thing to Swallow’

On Tuesday, HPD officials described how the department responds to domestic violence and family abuse, reading from policy manuals and answering questions from council members.

The forum was much friendlier than the one Kealoha and his top commanders encountered Sept. 30 when Hawaii state lawmakers skewered HPD over its handling of the Cachola case and called for increased public oversight.

Council members Kymberly Pine and Carol Fukunaga, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, were the two most active inquisitors Tuesday, with much of their attention focused on the evidence HPD needs before making an arrest.

It’s been a persistent question ever since the Cachola video came out. Pine even said that it can be “a difficult thing to swallow,” especially to the average person who might only see the version of the video that shows Cachola repeatedly striking his girlfriend.

“They need safety and security. They don’t want to feel hazed or left out.” — Maj. Lester Hite, referring to HPD employees

HPD is considering expanding its domestic violence training from one hour a year for each officer to two or more hours annually. New recruits receive four hours of domestic violence training in the classroom before graduating, although officials said they also learn in the field.

Look, who administers domestic violence training for the department, told council members that when he took over in 2013 he found the training to be lacking in that reports were missing important information and didn’t always reflect an understanding of the law.

He said it’s also important to make sure officers know how to respond properly when the suspect is a badge-carrying colleague.

“We have to change the thinking here,” Look said. “Everything has to be for the victim, for the victim, for the victim. That’s what I’m pounding into their heads right now.”

HPD has a training budget for fiscal year 2015 of $17.3 million. That money is spread out over a number of programs, including domestic violence refresher courses and active-shooter scenarios.

Negotiating the Meaning of Transparency

Fukunaga questioned Kealoha on how the department would handle public disclosure of internal investigations, bringing up vague annual legislative reports concerning how many officers are suspended or fired for misconduct.

This is expected to be a significant talking point moving forward, as many people have said the lack of transparency surrounding police investigations — particularly those involving officers who are suspected of wrongdoing —  can lead to public distrust.

Kealoha has admitted that HPD needs to improve its public image, and on Tuesday reiterated his commitment to providing more information to citizens.

But the chief quickly tempered that promise, saying the level of transparency will ultimately come down to negotiations with lawmakers and union officials, namely those involved with the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

The police union has long been an advocate for keeping officer misconduct under wraps, fighting both in the courtrooms and the halls of the Legislature.

“We want to be as transparent as we can, but everybody has a different definition of what transparency means,” Kealoha said. “So the dialogue has begun. This is a different time and our citizens want more transparency from the city.”

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