Dozens of people have died over the years after encounters with Hawaii police officers, yet few details ever emerge about whether the officers’ actions were justified.

Hawaii Sen. Will Espero wants to change all that in the 2016 legislative session with a bill that would create a civilian oversight board to review in-custody deaths and police shootings.

The board would take on high-profile cases, such those involving Sheldon Haleck, Gregory Gordon and Aaron Torres — three men who recently died at the hands of Honolulu police — to determine whether officers acted appropriately.

Senator Will Espero during a Hawaii Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force meeting at the Hawaii State Capitol on September 9, 2014.
State Sen. Will Espero says he knows it will be difficult to enact police reform in Hawaii. He’s been trying it for years with little success. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

It would also investigate non-fatal shootings, including those that cause injury or are the result of accidents, such as what occurred earlier this year when an off-duty officer shot a woman in the stomach while he was at a bar.

“We have very poor civilian oversight of our law enforcement,” Espero said during a Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting on Monday. “We have poor oversight and nobody’s talking about reform or changes.”

Espero is still working on a final draft of the bill, but he said he wants the review board to be made up mostly of former law enforcement officials, including retired cops, prosecutors and judges. He also wants to include someone from academia.

The board would have its own investigator who could help it review internal affairs reports and other information related to various shooting and death cases. Any findings would then be issued to the proper authorities, such as police commissions and prosecutors, for consideration.

“We have very poor civilian oversight of our law enforcement. We have poor oversight and nobody’s talking about reform or changes.”

Espero said it’s important that any reports issued by the review board be made public so that there’s “full transparency.”

Kenneth Lawson, an associate faculty specialist at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, says Espero’s push for more civilian oversight is a step in the right direction for Hawaii.

Lawson has a history of taking on police misconduct on the mainland, and he says the Aloha State is behind a lot of others when it comes to police accountability and transparency.

One of the main problems, he said, is that police departments are often charged with investigating their own officers. Once those investigations are complete — particularly those related to misconduct — the files are locked up, redacted or destroyed.

“An independent review board for police shootings and in-custody deaths will have an effect if it’s given the equal weight of an internal affairs investigation,” Lawson said.

“I hope that whatever review board can be developed here has the ability to subpoena witnesses and make recommendations that have to be followed by the mayor, the police commission or whoever it is that would make a final determination to impose discipline or recommend prosecution,” Lawson said

Despite momentum in 2015 to improve police accountability in the Aloha State, nearly every single measure failed in committee.
Nearly every measure to improve police accountability failed in the last legislative session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Espero says that his bill, like all legislation, is malleable and subject to change during deliberations. But he also admits that it will be difficult to gain the support of his colleagues.

The 2015 legislative session saw a record number of police reform bills introduced in the wake of several high profile scandals involving the Honolulu Police Department, including an FBI investigation of Police Chief Louis Kealoha.

Nearly every one of those measures, including those that requested funding for officer-mounted body cameras and more transparency regarding officer misconduct, died in committee.

Espero plans to resurrect several of those bills in the coming session, and will introduce many more that he believes will boost accountability.

Some key measures include providing funds for body cameras, giving police commissions the ability to discipline officers and reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture program.

The senator will continue to push a proposal to create a statewide police standards and training board to set minimum qualifications for officers. Hawaii is currently the only state in the U.S. without such an agency.

He also plans to advocate for a bill that will make the names of police officers suspended for misconduct public. Currently, the state’s public records law prohibits the release of those officers’ names unless they are terminated.

County police officers are the only public employees in the state afforded that exemption. A case is currently pending at the Hawaii Supreme Court that could effectively eliminate the exemption.

“These bills have an uphill battle,” Espero said. “(But) everybody needs to be held accountable.”

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