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The latest installment in the long-running Hawaii police saga that might well be titled “Officers Behaving Badly” debuted earlier this month. This episode featured a two-year Honolulu Police Department veteran slamming a local man on a concrete sidewalk in Palolo and threatening to arrest him.
The action was captured on video and quickly made its way onto newscasts and websites, where it was served up to a community that’s undoubtedly thinking, “Here we go again.”
It wasn’t clear from the video or subsequent reporting why the officer employed such a violent takedown of a man who wasn’t even arrested. The victim filed a criminal complaint against the officer, who has now been relieved of his firearm and placed on desk duty.
Coincidentally, 5,000 miles away on the same day in Washington, D.C., a White House task force was releasing its report on policing and communities. Established not long after both Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, were killed by police last summer, the task force worked quickly to meet a 90-day deadline set by the White House “to identify best practices and offer recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”
Among its many recommendations, the task force’s 115-page report called for transparent and swift communications with the public after incidents of alleged police misconduct, more body cameras for officers, and an end to profiling and discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation.
While the report was national in scope, it was strongly applicable to the Aloha State, given the recent high-profile incidents here. Adding irony to the timing noted above, it was issued just as measures that would address many problems raised in the report and that had buoyed hopes for reform only a month ago stalled in the Hawaii Legislature.
Just days ago, for instance, Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran killed a bill that would have made public the names of officers suspended for misconduct. The legislation would have overturned a law passed by the Legislature in 1995 preventing the release of names of cops who are disciplined unless they have been fired.
Sen. Will Espero wasn’t alone in registering disappointment over the bill’s demise: “I wish we could have sent it over to the House. I think it would have sent a strong message.”
Senate Bill 568 would have established a law enforcement standards board responsible for overseeing police officer training and setting performance standards, finally addressing the fact that Hawaii is the only state without such a board. The White House task force actually recommended that the U.S. Department of Justice provide incentive funding toward regional training and shared services for smaller police departments, such as Hawaii’s county departments. Yet, the measure died for lack of a hearing by Ways and Means/Judiciary and Labor.
House Bill 450 and Senate Bill 389 — which would have required that three members of each police commission have backgrounds that include equality for women, civil rights and law enforcement — are kaput, despite being part of the Women’s Legislative Caucus package. The House version couldn’t even get a committee hearing.
Senate Bill 199 would have set aside $2.7 million over two years for county police departments for the purchase of dashboard-mounted and body cameras. It fizzled more than three weeks ago.
There are two bright spots in all this: House Bill 365, which would provide matching grants-in-aid to local governments for police body cameras, and House Bill 456, which would eliminate any requirement for a victim alleging domestic violence against a police officer to submit a written, notarized complaint. The House passed both bills, and on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs followed suit. The bills must both survive another committee referral before going before the full Senate, so their fates are uncertain.
The committee action on HB 465, in particular, illustrated some of the frustration bubbling up around reform bills. Public Safety Vice Chair Roz Baker was dismayed to learn that a provision for sworn, written complaints in domestic violence matters involving police officers is not statutory, but a clause within the collective bargaining agreement between HPD and the police union.
“I don’t care what’s in the SHOPO contract, it’s not right,” she fumed, referring to the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
After the meeting she added, “It’s a means of intimidating people who want to report domestic violence. It’s appalling police wouldn’t do everything in their power to protect victims but would instead be protecting their own.”
Baker is right to be righteously indignant. Incidents such as the recent body-slamming episode, the case of Sgt. Darren Cachola repeatedly striking his girlfriend last fall at a Waipahu restaurant and the matter of Officer Vince Morre, who kicked a man in the face – twice – at an Ala Moana gaming room increasingly, unfortunately shape perceptions of HPD throughout the community. They do more than damage the department’s reputation, they degrade the compact of trust between citizens and those sworn to protect them.
A few facts from Civil Beat’s 2013 “In the Name of the Law” investigation of local law enforcement bear repeating:
With a national task force shining a timely light on best policing practices and a growing number of incidents locally pointing to a need for reform, the ball is squarely in the court of the Legislature, with the session’s end drawing closer.
Will this be a year in which longstanding desires for change are fulfilled? Or yet another season of dashed hopes?