It appears that Hawaii will continue to lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to setting minimum training requirements for state and county law enforcement officers.
On Tuesday, the House Labor Committee, chaired by Rep. Mark Nakashima, deferred Senate Bill 2755, which would have created a statewide police standards and training board.
Hawaii is the only state without such an agency.
Instead, Nakashima’s office said the representative, who could not be reached directly for comment, favors another House measure that has already passed through to the Senate for consideration.
But HB 2460 does not say anything about creating a standards and review board for training of officers carrying firearms, as SB 2755 intended.
Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole, the author of HB 2460 and Nakashima’s vice chair on the Labor Committee, said his bill seeks to address the alleged assault of a Big Island teenager by a Department of Land and Natural Resources law enforcement officer.
He said he is frustrated that a number of positions in different state agencies that have police powers can only recruit people with law enforcement backgrounds — even if that background is checkered, as it was in the DLNR case.
Sen. Will Espero, author of SB 2755, said he was “not happy” with the deferral of his bill because HB 2460 makes no mention of training at the county level, where police departments operate. He said he planned to call Nakashima to see if there was a way to amend the House bill that remains alive in the Senate to reflect the intentions of SB 2755.
Espero said he thought Nakashima shared his desire to improve law enforcement training.
HB 2460 has been referred to the Senate Public Safety Committee, chaired by Clarence Nishihara and vice chaired by Espero. Despite the absence of a review board in the bill, Espero said the fact that the measure is “heavy on training is a positive step, no doubt.”
Told about Espero’s intentions, Keohokalole said he supported passing a bill this session that shows that “at least we can say we have made some progress” in recruiting and training law enforcement officers.
While SB 2755 was generally supported by those seeking to improve police accountability in the Aloha State, some cited its flaws.
For one, the training and standards board would set the minimum requirements to become a law enforcement officer in the state. Such requirements could include those related to age, education, criminal background checks, hearing, eyesight and psychological exams.
But the bill had been amended to make such requirements voluntary, meaning county and state agencies could simply ignore the recommendations.
This likely would have been the case for county police agencies, including the Honolulu Police Department and Maui Police Department, that opposed the bill. Both departments submitted written testimony to Nakashima’s committee saying that their training standards were already stringent enough.
HPD Capt. Gregory Osbun Jr. testified that he believed his department “currently meets the highest standards possible for a law enforcement agency,” standards accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
Tivoli Faaumu, Maui’s chief of police, said the bill “would not serve any purpose other than to create confusion” with standards Maui’s police department had already established per the commission.
But the commission is a private, nonprofit corporation that sets public safety benchmarks and charges departments a fee to see if they meet those standards — not nearly the same thing as a government agency with enforcement powers.
Other government agencies employing law enforcement officers supported SB 2755. They included Suzanne Case, chair of DLNR; Nolan Espinda, Public Safety director; and Ford Fuchigami, director of the state Department of Transportation.
Mandy Finlay, advocacy coordinator for ACLU of Hawaii, testified the measure “would be consistent with nationwide practices, and would serve to increase law enforcement transparency and accountability. Law enforcement officers, especially those authorized to use deadly force, should be responsive to the communities they serve.”
Another missing component from SB 2755 — one that was included in prior legislative attempts to create a standards and training board — was a licensing and certification process for officers.
Most states have such a certification program. If officers get into trouble or don’t meet the minimum standards of employment, they can then have their license suspended or revoked.
It would be similar to other professional licensing boards that oversee doctors, lawyers, elevator mechanics and massage therapists.
A certification program could help ensure they don’t bounce from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, as was the case with Ethan Ferguson, a fired Honolulu police officer who was later hired by DLNR.
Ferguson now stands accused of sexually assaulting a teenager while working as a DLNR officer on the Big Island. It is the Ferguson case that inspired Keohokalole’s legislation.
Police reform has been a hard sell at the state Legislature.
This year, a Senate bill from Espero requiring the Department of the Attorney General to to implement and maintain a public database of all law enforcement officers who have been terminated from their law enforcement positions, or forced to resign due to criminal activity, improper behavior or misconduct, has died.
Same goes for a Senate measure that would have repealed the confidentiality protection afforded under the Uniform Information Practices Act for information regarding misconduct of police officers that results in suspension. It was introduced by Majority Leader Kalani English and included Espero as a cosponsor.
There are, however, two police reform measures still alive this session: