A decorated police officer caught on video taking a swipe at a bystander who was recording an arrest on his iPhone will cost Honolulu taxpayers $37,500.
On Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council approved the payout to Randy Salazar Jr., who in a federal lawsuit alleges Officer Robert Steiner broke a bone in his hand after hitting him with a Taser on New Year’s Day 2013.
But the settlement raises many questions about how the Honolulu Police Department handles misconduct within its ranks.
It also comes amid growing concerns with HPD over recent officer-involved shootings, the lack of proper response to domestic violence cases and whether bad behavior on the part of officers is being covered up.
Honolulu Police Department headquarters.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
“The police have a hard job, and for the most part they’re doing it well, but they’re not above the law,” said Tracy Fukui, the Honolulu-based attorney who represented Salazar. “When their actions cross the line there need to be consequences, and that’s what we sought to do with the civil case.”
Looking for ‘Some Kind of Justice’
Steiner is a 22-year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department, who currently works in the traffic division.
On Jan. 1, 2013, he was one of several officers who responded to reports of a large fight outside the Halawa View Apartments on Kalaloa Street.
Video from Salazar’s phone shows Steiner had his Taser drawn while he and other officers put handcuffs on a suspect, who did not appear to be resisting arrest or attempting to flee. At one point Steiner can be heard telling the man to “shut up.”
As the officers escorted the suspect away from the property, the lawsuit says Steiner “taser-whipped” Salazar and that the officer’s only motive was to “chill his constitutionally protected right to film police officers in the public execution of their duties.”
You can watch the Salazar video here:
Fukui said her client asked the Honolulu Police Commission to investigate the matter as a neutral third party, but that the case was sent to HPD’s internal affairs division instead.
Court records show that the internal affairs investigators sought to charge Steiner with second-degree assault. The Honolulu Prosecutor’s office declined, saying there was “insufficient evidence.”
Fukui said HPD conducted an administrative investigation against Steiner to see if he should be disciplined. A court order prevents her from talking about the results of that investigation.
“My client just wanted some kind of justice,” she said about the settlement. “He basically wanted to move on with his life.”
Something ‘Deeply Troubling’
Fukui has a history with HPD. She’s a former city attorney who defended police officers accused of misconduct. Court records show she was involved in as many as 19 cases, most of which involved excessive force, illegal seizure and illegal detainment.
The city attorneys defending Steiner tried to get Fukui disqualified from the case, saying in court records that she was privy to confidential and attorney-client privileged information when working at Corporation Counsel on behalf of HPD.
The attorneys even went so far as to contact the Honolulu Ethics Commission and Office of Disciplinary Counsel in their attempts to get Fukui barred from the case.
In one filing, Deputy Police Chief Dave Kajihiro says he confided in Fukui sensitive information about HPD and that he “felt betrayed” she would make a career suing the department she once defended.
Kajihiro also said he had developed such a “close and trusting relationship” with Fukui that he had even given her information about criminal matters that he wouldn’t disclose to prosecutors.
Fukui told Civil Beat she was not allowed to say what criminal matters she and Kajihiro discussed, and that doing so could result in disciplinary action including disbarment.
But in court records she filed in response to the city’s attempts to kick her off the Salazar case, Fukui said she found Kajihiro’s actions to “keep secret” criminal information “deeply troubling.”
While working with another city attorney on a civil case in 2012, Fukui wrote she came across information about an officer’s actions in an unrelated criminal incident.
She took her concerns to her supervisors, including former Honolulu Corporation Counsel Robert Godbey, who arranged a meeting with Kajihiro to discuss her findings.
Fukui said in the court records that at the meeting HPD already seemed to be aware of the issue and likewise had not informed the prosecutor’s office.
“In the months following said meeting, it did not appear that HPD was addressing the matter referenced above, which as a former Deputy Public Defender, continued to deeply disturb me,” Fukui wrote.
Ultimately, Fukui quit her job with the city attorney’s office because, the filings say, she couldn’t bear the weight on her conscience.
Both HPD or the city’s Department of Corporation Counsel declined to comment on the Steiner case because it’s considered pending litigation.
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