- Special Projects
A racial discrimination lawsuit involving three Honolulu police officers who say their lives were put at risk because of the color of their skin appears to be about to come to an end.
The lengthy — and costly — case goes all the way back to 2004 and involves allegations of retaliation and cover-ups by top Honolulu Police Department officials and city attorneys. The plaintiffs are current and former police officers Sherman Dowkin, who is black, Federico Delgadillo Jr., a Mexican-American, and Cassandra Huihui, who is white.
Federal court records on a settlement agreement with the city of Honolulu have been sealed. So it’s unclear how much taxpayers will have to shell out in the case.
But earlier this week the Honolulu City Council approved spending up to $975,000 to cover legal fees. The Council has yet to consider the settlement agreement.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs and the city did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon. Neither did representatives of HPD.
The case began in 2004 when Dowkin, a black officer who was the head of the DUI enforcement team in Kailua, complained to supervisors that HPD commanders in his district refused to provide him and Delgadillo with backup during nighttime traffic stops, a mandatory requirement for the safety of the officers.
According to the lawsuit, Dowkin and Delgadillo did not receive backup because the patrol commanders, Lt. Dan Kwon and Sgt. Wayne Fernandez, had ordered other officers — described as Asian-American and mixed-race — not to provide backup for the DUI team.
Dowkin and Delgadillo, who was the only Mexican-American working in that patrol district at the time, believed the reason they didn’t get support was due to their race, citing several incidents in which they were called derogatory names, such as “nigger,” “beaner” and “senorita.”
In 2008, Dowkin and Delgadillo filed a racial discrimination complaint with then-Police Chief Boisse Correa.
“Sgt. Dowkin knew that this memo ‘crossed the blue line’ and could potentially invite retaliation, but he was certain that he and Officer Delgadillo were deliberately not being provided with back-up cover because of their race and it was only a matter of time before one of them would be seriously injured or killed as a result,” according to a pre-trial statement filed last month.
“After four years of wondering if they would survive their night shifts and after four years of them (and their spouses) suffering increasing stress and anxiety (developing into later-diagnosed PTSD for both of them), Sgt. Dowkin and Officer Delgadillo decided that they had no choice but to ‘cross the blue line’ and report the discrimination to the Chief of Police.”
An internal affairs investigation was launched, and the lawsuit says that when Huihui was interviewed by investigators she acknowledged that the lack of backup for Dowkin and Delgadillo was likely due to their race.
That’s when she says she began experiencing the same treatment — known as icing — that was meant to ostracize and isolate her from her colleagues. Huihui, who was a patrol officer at the time, also did not get backup during nighttime calls. And like Dowkin and Delgadillo, she too complained of racial and gender discrimination.
The three officers filed their discrimination lawsuit in February 2010, when Police Chief Louis Kealoha was the head of the department.
But the discrimination continued even after the lawsuit was filed, the pre-trial statement says. Not only were the officers not re-assigned to other units but Huihui was transferred to work directly for a sergeant allegedly involved in the discrimination, Ralston Tanaka, according to the court file.
In October, 2010, Huihui was seriously injured when she confronted a suspect in Porky’s Bar. She alleges she was directed to approach the potentially armed and dangerous felon without proper backup.
Huihui was attacked after entering the bar, resulting in serious and permanent injury, according to court records. She was medically discharged in 2015.
“She is now totally disabled, needs the assistance of a cane to walk and can never again work or lead an active life,” the court records say, “all because of the despicable failure of an institution riddled with weak men unable to cope with their own prejudice and false pride, placing their officers at deadly risk of harm and even death.”
A second lawsuit filed by Dowkin, Delgadillo and Huihui in 2012 alleges that HPD and other city officials tried to hide or “whitewash” the fact that the department had disciplined Kwon for using racially derogatory language, a fact that could have been used against the city. That case is now pending at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.