The family of Sheldon Haleck, who died on March 16 after an encounter with Honolulu police, is suing the department in federal court for the negligent use of force, alleging that officials have been trying to cover up the circumstances surrounding his death.
Eric Seitz, who represents the family, said the case is one of the most egregious he’s seen in more than 30 years of taking on police misconduct in Hawaii. He said Haleck was essentially killed for a jaywalking offense, and that he never presented a threat to the officers who deployed pepper spray and Tasers to subdue him.
“In other parts of the country, thousands if not tens of thousands of people would be out in the streets demanding some sort of justice for Sheldon Haleck,” Seitz told reporters during a press conference in downtown Honolulu on Tuesday. “In this case, unfortunately, I think people are somewhat immune to this sort of police conduct. The chief of police, the mayor, nobody has made any public statements of any sort about this case.”
Haleck, 38, died after a struggle with police officers near Iolani Palace. According to police, Haleck was acting erratically and running through traffic in dark-colored clothing. A Honolulu Police Department press release also described Haleck as being “combative” and “disorderly.”
But beyond that, details have been hard to come by. The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office refused to release Haleck’s autopsy for several months after the incident, saying that police and prosecutors did not want the information to be made public while an investigation into the incident was pending.
Taser videos obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request also raised questions about whether the officers making the arrest followed proper protocol when trying to subdue Haleck. One video showed Haleck holding up his hands and backing away as officers told him to get on the sidewalk. Another showed him face down on the ground screaming as he was handcuffed and leg shackled.
Honolulu Medical Examiner Christopher Happy eventually ruled the death a homicide, saying Haleck’s fight with police is ultimately what killed him. (Homicide as used by the medical examiner does not necessarily mean a crime was committed, only that Helack’s death was caused by someone else.)
“All I can say is it reeks. It stinks. If you look at what happened in New York and in St. Louis and in Baltimore, there was at least some effort in transparency.” — Eric Seitz
Happy said methamphetamine in Haleck’s system was also a contributing factor in his death. Haleck also suffered from blunt force trauma to the head.
Seitz, however, says Haleck was murdered, and that the city has been trying to hide the facts from the family and the public. He says he’s been repeatedly stonewalled when trying to get information, such as police reports and call transcripts, from HPD and other agencies involved in the case.
He blamed HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who is the city’s top attorney, for the blockades. Seitz said neither Kealoha or Leong have responded to repeated calls and letters requesting information.
He added that their lack of response has been all the more offensive considering that Haleck’s father is a former law enforcement agent, having spent several years working for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
“We have concluded that there is a very substantial and deliberate cover up that’s going on in the City and County of Honolulu,” Seitz said.
“All I can say is it reeks. It stinks. If you look at what happened in New York and in St. Louis and in Baltimore, there was at least some effort in transparency and in providing assurances to the public that the public officials who were responsible for investigating the deaths in those communities were doing so responsibly. We don’t have any assurances of that here.”
Seitz added that he has serious concerns about the Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, saying that he believes it was influenced by police and other city officials.
Corporation Counsel, HPD and the Medical Examiner’s Office all refused to comment on the lawsuit.
The three officers named in the lawsuit are Christopher Chung, Samantha Critchlow and Stephen Kardash. Seitz said it was Critchlow who deployed the Taser on Haleck.