What happened?  This year, state lawmakers introduced a record number of bills aiming to modernize and restore trust in Hawaii’s county police departments, yet only one of the police reform bills passed.

Sen. Laura Thielen says the single bill that survived was “the least important of all the bills we submitted on improving police accountability.”

The bill that made it through requires each county police department to post on its official website its policies on domestic violence, police officer involved domestic violence and standards of conduct.

That bill was prompted by concerns that police officers accused of domestic violence might be getting special treatment by the Honolulu Police Department.  Some women’s rights advocates and lawmakers said they were unable to find HPD’s domestic violence policies on line.

HPD vehicles stage for President Obama motorcade at Kaneohe Marine Base on Christmas Day. 2014. 25 deccember 2014.  photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Efforts at police reform fell flat in this year’s legislative session despite recent high-profile controversies.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A 2013 Civil Beat investigation by Nick Grube found in the last 15 years only three officers had been fired for domestic violence incidents and even then two of the dismissed officers where reinstated and the other officer was allowed to resign.  In the same period, 23 police officers were suspended for violence against family members but six of the officers were suspended for only one day.

The concern was heightened by the still unresolved internal investigation of HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola caught on videotape in a Waipahu restaurant punching his girlfriend to the ground.  Cachola was chauffeured home in an allegedly drunken state by two police officers.

The responding officers failed to arrest Cachola or even file an incident report.

Sen. Thielen says it is important for the public to see online the police department policies on handling domestic violence and to know how policies are written to insure police officers are held accountable when they are accused of domestic violence. But she says that bill will have the least impact on improving how Hawaii’s police respond to domestic violence cases.

Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran’s Judiciary and Labor Committee was where most of the police reform bills died for the year.

“I am extremely disappointed the bills did not pass out of Senate Judiciary committee,” says Thielen.

Thielen tried but failed to win passage for a bill to end a ridiculous and unfair state policy lawmakers approved 20 years ago to allow police to keep secret the names of officers suspended for misconduct.

The law prevents the public from knowing the name of a misbehaving officer even if the officer has been suspended multiple times. Only when an office is fired for misconduct can his or her name become public.

Because of the special privacy protections offered to police under this law, we still do not know if police Sgt. Cachola and the other two officers who drove him home without filing a report were disciplined.

Hawaii’s police officers are the only public employees in the state who can hide from public scrutiny when they are suspended for wrongdoing.

Judiciary Chairman Keith-Agaran says he stopped the bill from advancing this year to wait to see how the State Supreme Court will rule on the issue in the next couple of months.

The high court is poised to weigh in on a lawsuit Civil Beat initiated. The news outlet sued and prevailed in Circuit Court in February 2014 to require that the names of police officers suspended for misconduct be made public.

Strong Union Opposition

But before any officers’ names could be revealed, lawyers for the statewide police officers’ union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, filed an appeal.

SHOPO has staunchly opposed making public the names of bad apple cops.

In testimony this year to oppose Thielen’s bill, SHOPO president Tenari Maafala said “release of officers’ names that have been suspended may have a chilling effect on the extent of action taken by officers who often have to make split second decisions. It impacts not only the officers but their families, too.”

I’m not exactly sure what Maafala means, but if he is trying to say that police officers might be ashamed to have their names released when they have behaved badly, so what?  They should be ashamed.

Keith-Agaran says it’s important to give the court time to review the appeal. “If the state Supreme Court confirms that police should not have a privacy exemption, then it becomes moot. There is no reason for the Legislature to have to do anything.”

Keith-Agaran says he is personally against giving police officers a special exemption that allows them to duck public scrutiny when they have been suspended for bad behavior.

“I genuinely think all public employees should be subject to the same treatment. I don’t think anyone should have an exemption,” he says.

Keith-Agaran says the bill to end police secrecy about suspensions for misconduct is still alive and if necessary can be revived next year.

“I have to take him at his word on that,” says Thielen. “It is critical that the secrecy about police discipline be ended.”

Sen. Will Espero, who authored many of the police accountability bills, says he doesn’t see why Keith-Agaran didn’t just go ahead this year and pass the bill to make clear to the courts and everyone else that the names of suspended police officers should be subject to disclosure. 

“To me, waiting for the courts to decide is just an excuse,” says Espero.

Keith-Agaran is the only Democratic Senate candidate the police union endorsed in the 2014 election.

Keith-Agaran says unions have endorsed him consistently since he first got into the Legislature, but a union’s endorsement does not influence or determine how he will vote on an issue.

“It is critical that the secrecy about police discipline be ended.” — Sen. Laura Thielen

Keith-Agaran says in the case of SHOPO, he has routinely supported bills SHOPO opposes, such as the proposals for medical marijuana dispensaries and the measures to prohibit discrimination against medical marijuana users, and that he voted in favor of a bill to allow same sex marriages which was adamantly opposed by  SHOPO president Maafala.

“I am not a knee-jerk law and order type. I lean toward being more of a civil libertarian when it comes to criminal justice issues,” he says.

Two of Sen. Espero’s key police reform bills died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

One bill called for the establishment of a law enforcement standards board.

Hawaii is the only state that does not have a statewide police standards board.

Espero’s bill called for a state board to set minimum training requirements and certify all Hawaii’s law enforcement officers, including county police, harbor police and state sheriffs. The board would be empowered to revoke an officer’s certification for serious misconduct.

There is really no reason this bill shouldn’t have passed,” says Espero, who has introduced the measure two years in a row.  “The goal of the bill is not to hurt the police but to help them.  And it is not just picking on HPD because it involves certification for all types of law enforcement officers across the board, statewide.”

Keith-Agaran says he was against the bill because of home rule issues. He says he had problems with a statewide agency governing county police departments, and he also had cost concerns about setting up a new state board.

Keith-Agaran’s committee also blocked Espero’s bill to give county mayors the right to fire police chiefs.  Currently by charter, county mayors are prohibited from firing police chiefs.

Keith-Agaran says his concerns about this bill also involved home rule. He says county police commissions have the authority to fire police chiefs and if a mayor had concerns about a particular police chief, he could easily make those concerns known to the police commission.

Senate Judiciary Committee a Killing Field for Police Reform

Other police reform bills that didn’t make out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this year include a measure introduced by Thielen to specify that a victim or witness to alleged domestic violence by a police officer will no longer have to make their complaint in writing, sign it and have it notarized. 

Thielen says the current police contract requires this multi-step procedure when there is a complaint against a police officer for alleged misconduct.  She says that discourages domestic victims from coming forward for fear of retaliation.

Still another bill authored by Thielen to strengthen police oversight failed to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The bill would have required a higher level of expertise on county police commissions.

Thielen says the current police commissioners are regular citizen volunteers often without the specific knowledge to properly investigate complaints of police misconduct.   So when an officer has been accused of misconduct, the commissions often have to rely on the police department to do the investigating.

Thielen says,  “All four county police departments have ended up being self regulating.”

Her bill would have required that each county police commission include one specialist in women’s rights, another specialist in civil rights and a commissioner with expertise in law enforcement.

Keith-Agaran says he was unable to support that bill because of home rule concerns. He says if a country wants to change the composition of its police commission, it should be left up to the county.

Senator Gilbert Keith-Agaran hat during ways and means hearing. 1 april 2015.  photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He opposed all but one measure aimed at reforming police accountability, misconduct and discipline processes.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Espero says he is talking to key lawmakers now to find out more about their concerns with the police reform bills that failed this year. Then, he says, he will prepare to return next session to try once again to get the bills passed.

“I am disappointed they did not pass this year yet at the same time, I am heartened by the amount of support we got from the media and from the public.

“At the end of the day, these were good policy bills. In general, the public supported them. I will be back next year with them.”

Sen.Thielen says she definitely wants to come back next year “to get further improvements passed.”

Thielen says, “There is a national conversation going on the need for police to be more transparent and accountable to the public. Police wield a tremendous amount of power. We are fortunate in Hawaii to have avoided the kinds problems some mainland police departments have faced with violence and allegations of racism.”

“But Hawaii’s police still need to be more accountable for their own benefit and for the public’s benefit,” she says. 

Keith-Agaran say there is concern here and on the mainland about police accountability but it is important when legislating to avoid passing laws to punish all the police for the bad actions of a few bad actors.

The agencies responsible, such as the county police commissions, need to deal with bad police officers, he says.

About the Author