Hawaii could soon have an independent review board to oversee all police killings and in-custody deaths to determine whether officers should face prosecution, although the board will not be able to force a prosecutor’s hand.

On Friday, state lawmakers agreed to terms on Senate Bill 2196, which will provide $100,000 to form a seven-member board made up of former law enforcement officials and two community members appointed by the governor and attorney general.

It was the only police reform measure that survived the Legislature’s conference committee process in which lawmakers negotiate behind closed doors to determine the fate of Hawaii’s future laws.

House rises during prayer at beginning of floor session. 12 april 2016.
Hawaii lawmakers wrangled with police reform during conference committee this week, resulting in a small step toward better accountability. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A bill that would have required county police departments to outfit officers and their vehicles with cameras died Friday, as did another measure that would have created a statewide training and standards board to set minimum eligibility requirements for working in law enforcement.

Hawaii remains the only state without a such an oversight board.

“I certainly would have liked to see more bills passed on the law enforcement side,” state Sen. Will Espero said Friday. “However, we did get the independent review board passed with an appropriation, so that is certainly another opportunity for better oversight, better accountability and some checks and balances.”

Senate Bill 2196 is a tepid step toward better police oversight in the Aloha State.

The board, which would be under the purview of the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, will review the criminal investigations into each police killing and in-custody death to determine if more information is needed or whether charges should be pursued.

While the board’s recommendations would be forwarded to county prosecutors, the prosecutors would not be required to follow the board’s recommendation.

An earlier draft of the bill would have created a board stacked with former prosecutors, judges and police chiefs, which experts said could undermine the board’s credibility.

But Espero, who introduced SB 2196 and was part of the closed-door negotiations, said that his colleagues acknowledged this shortcoming in the bill, and amended it Friday during conference committee to include two community members.

“I do think there was some concern that it was top-heavy with the prosecutors,” Espero said.

Still, SB 2196 has its flaws, particularly when it comes to making the board’s recommendations public. The bill states that board recommendations can only be released after “any criminal prosecution or proceedings” have been completed.

Some, including Brian Black, of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, worry that such language could keep the board’s recommendations locked away from the public for years. But Black also said there could be “timely transparency,” should a prosecutor decline to prosecute a case and the board’s recommendations are immediately released to the public.

“There is some value to the board,” Black said. “You can’t say it’s not doing anything.”

Another bill passed out of conference committee Friday, Senate Bill 2439, clarifies that it is legal to film or otherwise record police performing their duties in public spaces so long as doing so doesn’t interfere with their jobs.

Both SB 2196 and SB 2439 now go the House and Senate floors for final approval before being sent to Gov. David Ige for his signature.

Civil Beat reporter Anita Hofschneider contributed to the reporting of this story.

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