Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha won’t talk about Ethan Ferguson. Neither will other top officials within his department. Just as mysterious is the lack of explanation for their silence.
Ferguson, 39, was fired by Kealoha in 2012 for lying to investigators and falsifying police reports about transporting a female juvenile runaway.
He’s now charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl on the Big Island while working as a law enforcement officer for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
According to court documents, he was on duty and in uniform.
Questions have since been raised about why the state would hire Ferguson in the first place, especially after knowing he had been fired by the Honolulu Police Department.
But there are also questions about what HPD officials actually told the state about Ferguson’s termination. One thing is certain — they’re not speaking publicly.
HPD Spokeswoman Michelle Yu said Monday that the department will not discuss Ferguson’s termination. She declined to explain the department’s silence on the issue.
Instead, Yu said the department would stand by a two-sentence summary of the reasons behind Ferguson’s firing that was buried in a 2013 report submitted to the Legislature about officer misconduct:
“The officer transported a juvenile female runaway without a supervisor’s authorization and was untruthful during the investigation. It was also determined that the officer altered another officer’s name and badge number in a police log book and submitted a falsified mileage record.”
The department has said it already destroyed Ferguson’s disciplinary file, which is a public record under state law. So that leaves the annual report as the only official explanation from HPD about Ferguson’s termination.
Such reports provide only a brief description of the allegations that resulted in an officer’s discharge or suspension. Names are not included in the reports, and are only released when an officer is discharged.
Often the only real details about an officer’s termination are included in voluminous internal affairs reports that are only releasable to the public 90 days after a firing is finalized.
Take the case of fired Honolulu police officer James Easley, who was terminated by the department in 2011.
HPD’s annual report to the Legislature said that an officer — later determined to be Easley — had been fired for conducting “personal business while on duty.”
But when HPD released Easley’s disciplinary file to Civil Beat through a public records request, it revealed that he had been accused of raping a woman on the hood of his patrol car.
Transparency is scant at HPD — and other county police departments — particularly when it comes to officer misconduct.
Much of that can be attributed to the state’s politically powerful police union, which has successfully lobbied for more secrecy and opposed attempts at reform.
State Senate Vice President Will Espero has been pushing back for the past several years. He wants all law enforcement officers in the state to be held more accountable, and has introduced several pieces of legislation to do so.
Espero has been pressing both HPD and the state for more information about Ferguson’s termination and subsequent hiring at DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.
The senator is planning to introduce legislation that would require county police departments, state law enforcement agencies and the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office to keep a database of all officers who are fired or forced to resign for misconduct.
“There’s concern out there,” Espero said. “We need to get some answers so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Espero has the support of at least one of his colleagues. State Sen. Laura Thielen has been calling for more oversight of police ever since an HPD officer was caught on restaurant surveillance video in 2014 taking swings at his girlfriend.
As the former head of DLNR, Thielen said she was shocked that the agency would hire Ferguson as a law enforcement officer after being told he was fired from HPD.
Still, she said there’s a dearth of information about Ferguson’s past that leaves too many unanswered questions as to what he really did to get fired and how much the state knew before offering him a job.
“We definitely have to close this loophole,” Thielen said. “How can we leave other law enforcement agencies in the dark about this problem where somebody can turn around, pick up a badge and a gun, and go work for another agency?”
Meanwhile, state officials from DLNR and the Department of Human Resource Development have been told to stay quiet while an internal review is completed.
Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, said the sex assault allegations facing Ferguson are “troubling,” but said she could not comment further.
“The administration is currently investigating the situation,” McMillan said. “Until that is completed we’re just not going to be able to add anything further on the subject.”
Ferguson, who faces five counts of sexual assault, has been placed on administrative leave with pay. His salary range, according to the DLNR, is $42,684 to $68,412.
He’s currently free on $13,000 bail and is scheduled to be in court Feb. 2 to enter a plea.