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Sheldon Haleck’s family still doesn’t know what caused his death after a nighttime run-in with Honolulu police officers near Iolani Palace on March 16.
Months have passed, yet officials at the Honolulu Police Department have refused to release any details to the Halecks or the public to help explain what happened.
A cryptic March 17 press release described the 38-year-old as “combative” and “disorderly” when officers pepper sprayed and tasered him. According to police, Haleck was running through the middle of the streets in dark-colored clothing and acting erratically. Once he was handcuffed and taken to the sidewalk he became unresponsive.
The Honolulu Police Department is keeping a tight lid on its investigation into Sheldon Haleck’s in-custody death.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
The family’s attorney, Eric Seitz, says he hasn’t been able to get a single police report on the incident. And the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office refuses to release Haleck’s autopsy results — a matter of public record — until receiving approval from the police chief and city prosecutor.
Seitz said the family can’t even get a death certificate for Haleck, which he says is needed for his clients to process pending insurance claims.
“As far as we know they murdered this guy and he wasn’t doing anything other than running around the streets,” Seitz told Civil Beat. “They’re not talking, and that basically fuels the supposition that they’ve got a lot to hide.”
Honolulu police didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
Haleck is one of four people killed by police in Hawaii so far this year, which is among the highest rates per capita in the country. His death spurred local protests, and has added to the national debate about the use of deadly force by police
But Seitz, who’s made a career out of taking on the police, says Haleck’s case also highlights the general lack of transparency at HPD and within the city attorney’s office. He has asked for but hasn’t received a justification from the city or the policy about why they’re withholding the records.
“I would love to find out what their version of events is because in these death cases there are always multiple versions of what took place,” Seitz said. “All they’re doing is stonewalling.”
Autopsy reports are public records under Hawaii law. But the Office of Information Practices, which is the government agency that administers the state’s open records law, issued an opinion in 1991 that blurred the line between what’s considered public and confidential.
The opinion, written by then-OIP staff attorney Stella Lee, says that autopsy reports can be withheld if they are an integral part of an ongoing police investigation and releasing them would interfere with a “legitimate government function,” which is one of a handful of exemptions that public agencies use to withhold government records from citizens.
Lee wrote that police and prosecutors might be able to argue that the release of autopsy reports “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings by permitting the targets of an investigation to have premature access to the government’s evidence or by assisting them in eluding detection.” She added that the autopsy reports should be made public at the end of any such investigation or prosecution.
It’s not clear how officials are applying this standard in the Haleck case.
Civil Beat asked the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office for Haleck’s autopsy report on May 5. The response, which was received the same day, was that the death investigation had not been completed yet.
On June 2 the Medical Examiner’s Office said the autopsy results were being withheld because there was an ongoing investigation. No other details have been provided.
But that’s not good enough, according to Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.
Black, who specializes in public records cases, says officials should provide at least some explanation as to why releasing Haleck’s autopsy would frustrate a legitimate government function.
“Being under investigation is not a justification to withhold records,” Black said. “There’s no blanket exception because there’s a police investigation. They have to actually justify withholding the records and they’ve refuse to provide that justification. That’s not how the law was set up to work.”
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