A bill that could unravel years of secrecy surrounding police officer misconduct in Hawaii  cleared its first hurdle Thursday at the State Capitol.

The Senate Public Safety Committee passed Senate Bill 3016, which would change the state’s public records law to allow access to information in the disciplinary files of police officers who’ve been suspended.

For more than 20 years, county police departments have withheld details about officer suspensions for misconduct, including officers’ names. This has limited the public oversight of law enforcement.

Transportation Chairs, Senator Will Espero and right, Chair/Senator Clarence Nishihara during hearings at the capitol. 19 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sens. Will Espero, left, and Clarence Nishihara, pictured here in 2015, passed a number of police reform measures out of the Public Safety Committee they head.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The names and details of misconduct by all other public employees can be released after a suspension or termination. Police are the only classification of state or county public employee afforded an exemption from the public records law for suspensions.

Since 1995, an officer’s wrongdoing is only made public is after a termination.

State Sen. Will Espero has been pushing for years to get rid of the exemption for suspended police officers, but with little success. He said after Thursday’s hearing that he hopes 2016 will be different.

“A lot has changed between this session and last session,” Espero said. “I know that there are many supporters of this legislation and I expect that they will come forward, come out and provide the necessary testimony and advocacy for these bills.”

Espero and others have submitted a number of police reform measures, including SB 3016, in response to several high-profile cases of alleged corruption, brutality and misconduct taking place in Hawaii’s police departments.

“I know that there are many supporters of this legislation and I expect that they will come forward, come out and provide the necessary testimony and advocacy for these bills.” — State Sen. Will Espero

The Honolulu Police Department has been front and center with a record number of officers being issued discharge notices in 2015. Its chief, Louis Kealoha, is under an FBI investigation.

There was little debate during Thursday’s hearing on SB 3016, but written testimony submitted on the bill was overwhelmingly positive.

Several state agencies and nonprofits supported the bill, including the Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development, the Office of Information Practices, the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

James Nishimoto, the state’s director of human resources, said that knowing an officer’s disciplinary history will make it easier to perform background checks and “determine the suitability of a prospective employee for employment.”

Nishimoto’s department has recently come under fire for hiring Ethan Ferguson, a former Honolulu police officer who had been fired for misconduct.

Ferguson was able to get a job as a conservation and resources conservation officer with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, despite the HPD recommending he not be hired.

Ferguson now stands accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl on the Big Island while in uniform. He’s currently on administrative leave with pay.

State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers President Tenari Maafala was the only person who submitted written testimony in opposition to SB 3016.

Maafala, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, said that making officers’ names and suspension records public would have a “chilling effect” on people who are hired to make split-second decisions while in the line of duty.

“It impacts not only the officers but their families, too,” Maafala wrote. “Though other employees are subject to release of their names for suspension, rarely, if ever, does that happen because of the level of news worthiness.”

SHOPO President Tenari Ma’afala testifies on behalf of Chief Kealoha during the Honolulu Police Commission meeting held at the Honolulu Police Departments main station, conference room A. 17 dec 2014. photo Cory Lum

SHOPO President Tenari Maafala has long opposed having police officer names released after they get suspended for misconduct.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The union leader also noted that the Hawaii Supreme Court is currently considering a case that deals specifically with the exemption.

That case was brought by Civil Beat which filed a lawsuit in 2013 to force the HPD to release suspension records for 12 officers who were suspended for 20 days or more for serious misconduct, ranging from assault and drunken driving to interfering with a federal investigation — far from the decisions made in the heat of police business that Maafala suggests.

“Though other employees are subject to release of their names for suspension, rarely, if ever, does that happen because of the level of news worthiness.” — SHOPO President Tenari Maafala

The news outlet won its argument in state Circuit Court, but SHOPO appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held in June 2015. A ruling is expected this year.

The Public Safety Committee also passed Senate Bill 2195, which would require all state law enforcement agencies to submit annual misconduct reports to the Legislature.

Currently, only county police departments are required to submit such information to the Legislature on an annual basis. Those reports include vague descriptions of an officer’s misconduct along with whether they were suspended or discharged.

Initially, SB2195 would only have applied to the Department of Public Safety sheriffs. The bill was amended to include all state law enforcment agencies.

Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda asked the committee in his written testimony to exempt his sheriffs who are suspended for misconduct from having their names released, which would put them on par with county police.

The committee, which was made up of Espero and Sens. Clarence Nishihara, Lorraine Inouye and Sam Slom, dismissed the request.

Other reform measures passed by the committee include a bill that would require county police commissions to include members with backgrounds in law enforcement, civil rights and domestic violence issues.

Another would mandate more training for state and county employees who might have to intervene in domestic violence situations, such as police officers and EMTs.

A bill to create a statewide database of law enforcement officers who were fired or forced to resign was deferred to Feb. 16. The bill was introduced in response to the Ethan Ferguson case.

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