Recent bad acts by Hawaii police are fueling a record number of police accountability bills at the Hawaii Legislature this year.
On Tuesday, eight bills passed through Sen. Will Espero’s Public Safety Committee with little objection from him or his colleagues, some of whom have been calling for more oversight.
A number of bills stem from a high-profile case involving a Honolulu Police Department sergeant who was caught on tape taking repeated swings at his girlfriend.
But others aim to improve transparency around the way police handle misconduct and investigating their own officers. Lawmakers also want to give teeth to the county police commissions that are supposed to oversee police departments and their chiefs.
“The police departments and law enforcement are certainly on our minds in terms of how we can make improvements and how we can make things better for our residents and our citizens,” Espero told Civil Beat after Tuesday’s hearing.
“These are good measures. We’re not looking at hurting anybody or demonizing anybody. But rather how can we improve government, how can we improve transparency and how can we rebuild the trust in our law enforcement officers?”
Senate Bill 497 is one of the more controversial measures passed Tuesday. The bill would eliminate an exemption in the state’s public records law for county police officers. Now, police departments don’t have to release the names of officers who have been suspended for misconduct, only for those those officers who have been fired.
But disciplinary records for all other public employees in Hawaii are public.
In 2013, Civil Beat’s five-part investigative series, “In the Name of the Law,” examined the exemption and issues that arise when the public can’t check on whether police officers are being held accountable for misconduct, even allowing bad cops to stay on the force. That series is cited in the bill.
Good government groups, media organizations and the Hawaii Office of Information Practices support the bill.
Hawaii’s statewide police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, provided the only opposition. In written testimony, SHOPO President Tenari Maafala said the Legislature should trust in the disciplinary system that today relies on police commissions and internal affairs divisions to crack down on misconduct.
Releasing names of officers who have been suspended, Maafala said, could have a “chilling effect” on future police actions requiring “split second decisions.” It could also negatively affect an officer’s family, he said.
But supporters say withholding the names effectively covers up serious misconduct and breeds distrust, especially when crimes are involved.
“One way to tell if police commissions and police chiefs are doing the correct job of disciplining officers is to know who was disciplined,” wrote Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Serious violations are seemingly met with minor suspensions, and it would be helpful to know who the suspended officers are. Also this would shine the light brighter on repeat offenders.”
While HPD has sided with SHOPO on similar measures in the past, the department is sitting out this round. HPD Maj. Clyde Ho, who heads the internal affairs division, told Civil Beat after Tuesday’s hearing that the department plans to stay neutral.
“We’re not going to support it, we’re not going to oppose it,” Ho said. “The position of the department is to just monitor it for now.”
He added that HPD is already looking at improvements in other areas that will address other bills passed Tuesday, including one that requires the department’s domestic violence policies and procedures are posted online.
Other bills passed Tuesday related to county police commissions, including one measure that would allow mayors to weigh in on the firing of police chiefs.
Several state lawmakers have criticized the Honolulu Police Commission for its handling of problems surrounding Chief Louis Kealoha, who has come under fire for how he runs his department as well as his involvement in criminal and civil cases involving his wife, her uncle and grandmother, and a stolen mailbox.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has avoided the issue, calling it a private matter. He has said he thinks the police commission is the appropriate authority to deal with the chief.
Lawmakers also discussed a bill Tuesday to create a statewide training and standards board for all Hawaii law enforcement agencies. The bill would include county departments as well as state sheriffs, park rangers and harbor police.
Espero introduced the bill after Civil Beat reported Hawaii was the only state in the U.S. without a training and standards board.
His proposal would provide state certification of law enforcement officials to ensure they meet minimum standards, such as passing a psychological exam before being issued a gun.
The board would also be charged with investigating misconduct, criminal activity or “questionable operations” involving law enforcement.
Officials from HPD, Hawaii County Police Department, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Attorney General’s Office expressed concerns with the bill.