Police unions across the country have been able to keep officer misconduct under wraps for years by negotiating contract clauses that limit access to disciplinary records, according to a new report from The Guardian.

The news agency got its hands on dozens of contracts from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) that were obtained by hackers who breached the FOP website.

About one-third of those leaked contracts included provisions that often mandated the destruction of civilian complaints, departmental investigations and disciplinary actions after a set period of time.

Honolulu Police Department officers along the parade route of the annual Honolulu Festival along Kalakaua Avenue. 8 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Police unions go a long way in helping cover-up officer misconduct, particularly at the negotiating table. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Limiting public access to misconduct was also a negotiating point for many unions as were mandates that departments be responsible for investigating their own.

Most experts quoted by the newspaper said this effectively undermined the role of civilian oversight of the police:

Samuel Walker, a professor in criminology at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, said there was “no justification” for the cleansing of officers’ records, which could contain details of their use of force against civilians.

“The public has a right to know,” Walker said. “If there was a controversial beating, we ought to know what action was actually taken. Was it a reprimand? A suspension?”

Walker said that while an officer’s whole personnel file should not be readily available to the public outside of court proceedings, records of disciplinary action should be.

This all sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Police misconduct is notoriously secret in Hawaii, so much so that even officers who commit egregious and criminal acts are allowed to keep their jobs without the public ever finding who they are or what exactly they did to get in trouble.

The state’s powerful police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, has been influential in keeping this information under wraps both at the bargaining table the state Capitol.

In 1995, SHOPO was successful in creating an exemption in the state’s public records law that essentially locked up county police officers’ disciplinary files unless they were discharged. This exemption is not afforded to any other public employee at the state or county level.

But now after decades of opacity, there seems to be a willingness to get rid of the exemption for county police as a means to increase public accountability.

The Legislature is considering a bill to eliminate the exemption and open up the disciplinary files of any officer who has been suspended or fired for misconduct.

Civil Beat has also filed a lawsuit against the Honolulu Police Department that could do the same. The police union is now fighting the case on behalf of its membership. A decision is pending at the Hawaii Supreme Court.

For even more on the lack of transparency surrounding officer misconduct read Civil Beat’s five-part investigative series In The Name Of The Law.

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