For the second time in two years the Hawaii Legislature has failed to pass a measure that would set minimum training standards for law enforcement officers and create a certification process that would help keep bad cops off the force.
State Sen. Will Espero began pushing for the measure in 2013 after Civil Beat reported that Hawaii is the only state without state-certified standards for police. The Aloha State is also one of six without a license revocation process for officers who don’t meet those standards or are guilty of wrongdoing.
Senate Bill 568 would have created an 11-member standards board within the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office to oversee training requirements for all law enforcement officers, from beat cops to park rangers.
The board, made up of both gubernatorial and mayoral appointees, would be charged with licensing officers who met those requirements and revoking the certification of those who didn’t. The board would also have the ability to investigate allegations of officer misconduct, and would have subpoena powers to do so.
While Espero’s latest version of the bill passed its first committee, it stalled once it reached the Senate’s finance and judiciary committees. Neither Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, nor Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who heads Judiciary and Labor, scheduled the necessary hearing for the bill to survive this session.
“We have standards for CPAs, we have standards for doctors and dentists. We have standards for many professions, even barbers.” — Sen. Will Espero
Tokuda said the bill was premature and needed more work before she would hold a hearing. There were too many questions about funding, she said, and several state and county agencies were worried the measure might overstep its bounds and add unnecessary bureacracy.
“Obviously, there needs to be a lot more worked out at this particular point,” Tokuda told Civil Beat in an interview. “This is not something you do just in the pressure cooker of a session. This is work that you need to do between May and December to actually bring parties together to decide what needs to happen.”
Officials from both the Honolulu Police Department and Hawaii County Police Department submitted testimony in opposition to the bill. They argued that the departments already follow best practices since their departments are certified by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.
The group, known as CALEA, is a private, nonprofit organization that sets public safety standards and charges a fee to see if departments stack up. Three of Hawaii’s four county police agencies are accredited by CALEA. The Kauai Police Department is currently trying to receive accreditation.
Some state agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office and Department of Transportation, supported the intent of the bill — DOT Director Ford Fuchigami even called it “an excellent idea” in his written testimony — but officials still had concerns about its implementation.
Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office wrote that the bill is a “very ambitious and costly endeavor” for a group of unpaid appointees. The agency also said the measure should be expanded to include more state departments that have police powers, such as the Department of Taxation and Department of Defense.
Some agencies expressed other technical concerns as well, including those related to how certification might influence existing collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions.
Although Tokuda blamed Espero for not working out all the details beforehand, she said the bill might still have merit.
“In general, we can always do a better job of holding all of our departments and agencies more accountable.” — Sen. Jill Tokuda
Recent high profile incidents, including one in which an off duty officer was caught on surveillance video repeatedly striking his girlfriend, have raised more questions about police misconduct and domestic violence procedures.
The HPD, in particular, has been under intense scrutiny for its handling of possible wrongdoing by its officers. The agency has been the subject of at least two FBI probes in the past several months.
Many people have called for more accountability and transparency from HPD and other police agencies. Tokuda said, however, said that some of these issues must take place at the county level, among the city council members, police commissioners and others who are charged with oversight of police.
“In general, we can always do a better job of holding all of our departments and agencies more accountable,” Tokuda said. “That’s something we should always strive for, to take a look at how we’re holding ourselves accountable and how we’re working with our departments and agencies to ensure accountability.”
Keith-Agaran, who also refused to hear a separate police transparency bill, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. During the 2014 election he was one of only two Senate candidate endorsed by the statewide police union.
Espero said he’s disappointed his bill stalled without more debate, especially considering it was co-sponsored by 14 other senators. A similar bill he introduced last year died without so much as a single hearing. But Espero says he’s not ready to give up.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have minimum standards for law enforcement officers,” Espero said. “We have standards for CPAs, we have standards for doctors and dentists. We have standards for many professions, even barbers.”
Police officers have incredible authority over citizens, he said, including the ability to arrest and use deadly force. That’s why they should be required to meet minimum standards for education, mental and physical fitness, character and conduct.
Espero said the fact that state sheriffs aren’t given psychological evaluations before being issued a gun is particularly bothersome.
“We need to convince individual groups that this will not do any harm to any of our law enforcement officers,” Espero said. “At the end of the day it will be a benefit to law enforcement officers as well as the public they are there to protect.”
A standards board would add another layer of oversight to what many regard as a weak system. County police commissions don’t investigate serious allegations of misconduct. Those cases are typically handled in house by individual departments, and records show it’s rare for bad cops to lose their jobs even if they committed crimes.
The ability to decertify police officers could help trim problem officers from the force. It would also ensure those officers don’t bounce from one department to another after being fired or forced to resign.
Roger Goldman, professor emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law, is a leading expert on police licensing and de-certification laws in the U.S. He has pushed to get all states to implement license revocation procedures, and worked closely with Espero on his bill.
Goldman said it sometimes takes years to pass a measure that allows states to revoke an officer’s license, typically due to pushback from individual departments and police unions.
Unfortunately, he said it often takes a high profile case to get lawmakers’ attention. But with recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Madison, Wisconsin in which officers killed unarmed black men, the climate for reform has gained immediacy.
“There’s definitely been a pique of interests since these incidents,” Goldman said. “But the further we get away from them the more difficult it is to get these things through. Inertia sets in.”
• Read Civil Beat’s investigative series on tracking police misconduct in Hawaii, “In the Name of the Law.”