A state law enforcement officer charged with five counts of sexual assault of a minor on the Big Island is a former Honolulu policeman who was fired in 2012 after falsifying reports and lying to investigators about his whereabouts when he was transporting an underage runaway.
Ethan Ferguson, 39, was arrested Thursday by the Hawaii County Police Department after a teenager reported she was sexually assaulted at a beach park in Hilo by a man dressed in a Department of Land and Natural Resources law enforcement uniform.
Ferguson has been a DLNR officer since June 27, 2013. On Monday, the Honolulu Police Department confirmed he had been discharged in 2012 after nearly 12 years on the force.
Officials with HPD refused to comment on Ferguson’s discharge or recent arrest.
Civil Beat has written about Ferguson before. In a 2014 story, Civil Beat reported that the only information available about his discharge comes from an annual report submitted to the Legislature about police officer misconduct. That’s because the department said it had already destroyed his full disciplinary file. That annual report, which noted Ferguson’s discharge as coming in 2013, describes his offense this way:
“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 report also says Ferguson violated HPD’s Standards of Conduct related for “Obedience of Laws and Regulations.”
According to a Hawaii County Police Department press release, Ferguson was charged Friday with two counts of second-degree sexual assault and three counts of fourth-degree sexual assault. His bail was set at $13,000 and he was scheduled to make his first appearance in court Monday.
It’s unclear whether DLNR knew if Ferguson had been fired from HPD. DLNR Director Suzanne Case declined Civil Beat’s request for an interview Monday after HPD confirmed Ferguson had been fired from the department before going to work for the state.
Officials from DLNR released a statement Friday saying that it performs criminal background checks on all prospective employees and that the department will launch an internal investigation into the sexual assault allegations against Ferguson. The department also said Ferguson has been placed on administrative leave with pay.
DLNR Spokeswoman Deborah Ward issued another statement Monday saying the department is now reviewing its records to determine what steps were followed during Ferguson’s hiring process to verify what information was provided to the agency.
But the case raises questions about how or even whether information on cops who are disciplined for misconduct is shared with other law enforcement agencies.
The Ferguson matter is concerning to state Sen. Will Espero, who for years has been pushing legislation that demands more accountability of police officers, especially those who are involved in misconduct.
Police misconduct in Hawaii is notoriously difficult to track due in large part to the fact that the public is precluded from accessing most information involving bad cops.
Espero, who sent Case an email Monday demanding answers from her about Ferguson’s hiring, told the DLNR director there needs to be better oversight of all law enforcement officers in the state.
“There is a need for a permanent statewide database for individuals who have been fired or terminated from all county and state law enforcement agencies in Hawaii,” Espero told Case.
“I believe this database should also include law enforcement officers who were forced to resign due to criminal activity, bad behavior, or misconduct. A database like this would have allowed DLNR staff to know Ferguson was fired from HPD if indeed he is the same person.”
Hawaii is the only state without a statewide standards and training board. It also does not require police officers to be licensed before being issued a badge and gun. At least 44 states revoke an officer’s license for wrongdoing, which can keep bad cops from bouncing from department to department.
Espero has introduced bills in the last couple years that would have implemented a licensing program as well as create a statewide standards and training board for law enforcement officers, including those working at county police departments and state agencies, such as the DLNR. The bill would have given the board the authority to revoke licenses for misconduct.
His measures, however, have never gained any traction in the Legislature. He has said he will continue to push for a standards board in 2016.