For a dizzying demonstration of how anonymous sourcing hurts the credibility of journalists – and diminishes the value of journalism to you, dear reader – look at the recent “EXCLUSIVE” report by Hawaii News Now about the state’s high-level sheriff’s deputies who reportedly lack basic law enforcement training.

This video piece, with a text version also available, starts with a strong premise. Reporter Keoki Kerr states that several local law-enforcement officials have been required to take training on foundational policing practices this month because they did not get that training when they originally joined the force decades ago.

In line with the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics, and its imperative to protect vulnerable sources – such as whistleblowers – Kerr declines to name “one veteran sheriff’s deputy,” who feared retaliation, when the deputy claimed: “They discourage guys from making cases because they don’t know how to handle them.”

Sheriffs stand in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building at 830am before the opening of the 2015 legislature. 21 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sheriff’s deputies stand in the rotunda of the Capitol Building on Wednesday morning before the opening of the 2015 legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kerr also claims “sources” in the division told him that this lack of training causes cases to “get fouled up,” due to ignorance about “Hawaii laws, search and seizure procedures or rules of evidence.” That seems like an appropriate shielding of sources by Kerr, too. This information serves as the key element that transforms a staff development story into something newsworthy.

Think about this situation. Deputies in Hawaii reportedly have been mishandling cases for decades because of a lack of basic training. And they have been promoted to senior positions, creating even more internal chaos, Kerr reported.

We should demand an investigation!

The SPJ Code instructs journalists to “ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open.” Only by investigating these claims can we, as citizens, be assured that our law enforcement agency is being administered properly.

What if you were involved in a case like this, that had been mishandled somehow, and it seriously had affected the life of you, your family, or your friends? What would you want to have happen here?

A Cover Up

Sending these senior deputies – on work time – to a month-long class doesn’t really seem like public retribution but more like a classic case of a cover up. If these claims are all true, then at the very least these mishandled cases should be identified, reviewed and discussed in a transparent way, with the victims and the public. And we should know as much as we possibly can about them, so reparations can get made and these sorts of mistakes never happen again. OK, so where’s the public review?

But hold on. Kerr’s overreliance on anonymous sources throughout the rest of this piece simultaneously stunts and steals much of his credibility about this story and drains the power from the primary proposition he is presenting. Just start with the basic counter position, that this lack of training did not affect any cases or the ways in which the officers performed their duties.

That is the argument presented by Shawn Tsuha, the state’s deputy director for law enforcement, who rhetorically framed this training as nothing more than a way to reduce legal liability in the department. He described all of the deputies in this situation as “great employees,” simply being brought up to a uniform standard. In other words, nothing to see (or worry about) here.

City and County workers do their sweep with Sheriffs and HPD on the scene near the intersection of Keawe Street and Ilalo Street in Kakaako. 17 sept 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sheriff’s deputies watch as City and County workers do a sweep of a homeless encampment near the intersection of Keawe Street and Ilalo Street in Kakaako. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kerr lets them off the hook in this case, not only by using anonymous sources to make his charges, but also by sniping at unnamed employees in the sheriff’s office. These are people he smears through claims that he does not back up with evidence. He fails to directly pin alleged incompetence on these deputies, by not naming names and describing particular cases. In the process, he lets the whole story slip between the cracks through his inability  — or unwillingness — to use specifics.

In significant detail, for example, he describes three deputies who reportedly lack this sort of training (and therefore inherently become linked to his Keystone Kops narrative.) Those are: the state’s first deputy sheriff, the No. 2 person who is in charge of more than 300 deputies statewide; the deputy sheriff in charge of the governor’s security detail; and the deputy sheriff who oversees sheriff’s patrols at the state Capitol.

An Opaque Sheriff’s Division

Unless you have somehow located a copy of the sheriff’s deputies’ organizational flow chart, such references mean very little to you. This department is difficult to track, because of the extreme lack of transparency on its website about who does what. The turmoil in the division last summer, when former state Sheriff Robin Nagamine, his first deputy Patrick Lee and other sheriff’s deputies were suspended, then demoted, only adds to the confusion about who is in charge at this point.

See how many clicks, for example, it takes you to find out who the sheriff is on the Department of Public Safety website. We can make it a contest, with an over-under at 10 clicks. After some clicking around myself (I lost track after 10), I eventually found the link to the Sheriff Division. No personnel listed there. When I searched for “Sheriff” on the site, the first related link showed Nagamine and his appointment as the “new sheriff” in 2013. I eventually gave up and went to Google, which helped me to locate the news that Renee Sonobe Hong appears to be the state Sheriff today. But that still didn’t help me with the identities of those Kerr referenced.

I waited, and waited, and waited and waited. Roughly four days later, I received the surprising – but not exactly shocking – response.

So I called Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, and asked her who these people were, from the exact descriptions provided by Kerr. She acknowledged that she knew who they were, and the people within the division knew who they were, but that I would need to make a public document request for her to discuss with legal counsel about releasing those names to me (and, by extension, the general public, who supports and pays for the communal costs of this Sheriff Division).

Schwartz helpfully provided me with the request form. I made the request on April 14 (at 5:01 p.m.), and included the name I had found through Google of the state’s first deputy sheriff (Albert “Al” Cummings), on the DPS blog. I asked for a confirmation that Cummings still was in that position and also for the release of the two other names, as described by Kerr.

I waited, and waited, and waited and waited. At 4:28 p.m. on April 18 (or roughly four days later), I received the surprising – but not exactly shocking – response.

A Frustrating Response

Schwartz actually wrote in an email that, per advice of legal counsel, releasing the names of the other two sheriff’s deputies would have the “potential to compromise the security of the people those sheriffs are tasked with protecting.”

And, she added, that creating such a “compromise” in security would “frustrate the legitimate government function” of the deputy sheriffs.

Well, that is a frustrating position for the state government to take, because it really is only protecting the deputy sheriffs from public scrutiny, especially under allegations as serious as those suggested by Kerr.

Such lack of transparency creates the perception of guilt and corruption.

Let’s reflect on this response by taking apart the anonymity shield idea. Who would be the people in this country probably most similar and most sensitive to this type of situation? I would argue the U.S. Secret Service, tasked with protecting the country’s president and the U.S. Capitol. Might you think it would be difficult to find out who exactly does that job?

But actually, the Department of Homeland Security (not the most transparent of government agencies, by the way) had no problem late last year with publishing on its website a photograph and listing of names and titles of all sorts of U.S. Secret Service agents, including the Special Agent in charge of the Dignitary Protective Division, several assistant Special Agents and the Uniformed Division Chief, Kevin Simpson, who arguably would be the rough equivalent of the two requests I made of Hawaii (except that Simpson is tasked with protecting the president of the United States).

Simpson can be found all over the news, by the way, primarily because the U.S. Secret Service has had so many screw ups in recent years. It recently has been accused of “systemic mismanagement,” such as allowing wild third-world parties with prostitutes, a man to jump the fence and run around the White House with a knife, drunken officers to drive into a potential explosive device and an officer sending lewd photographs, while on duty at the White House, to a 14-year-old girl.

More Secret Than The Secret Service

But none of that kind of stuff could happen in Hawaii, right? How would any of us in the public know, though? Late last year, when Honobe Song was appointed as the new Sheriff, the Department of Public Safety wouldn’t even say what happened to the old sheriff, Nagamine, and his first deputy, Lee, other than to say they were placed on an unspecified leave before being demoted. Such lack of transparency creates the perception of guilt and corruption.

But let’s get back to the original media issues here. One of the core principles of the SPJ Code is to “identify sources clearly.” The public has the right to know, in this case; and those being identified in the story, even if not by name, should have the opportunity to comment in their defense. By using inflammatory language in his video intro – with Kerr saying “It’s hard to believe” that several of the state’s sheriff’s deputies lacked training and possibly botched cases because of that ignorance – he is accusing them, at the very least, of being incompetent.

Hawaii News Now needs to do the appropriate follow up, so we, as citizens of this state, can judge how well our sheriff’s deputies are performing their duties as our public servants.

That is a serious charge against public servants who, I assume, take their jobs very seriously. By not naming names, Kerr besmirches everyone who works in that division and could possibly be in these roles mentioned, including the “about 15” insufficiently trained sheriff’s deputies. Such an approach, of not naming names, does not allow the audience to know who is being accused of this negligence, and it also does not allow the accused to respond, including all of the people covered by the broad brush of such imprecise description.

Kerr should have followed up this story by naming those names and asking those people accused specifically about the cases he claims were bungled. He should have shown his evidence of the bungling.

But shortly after this report, Keoki Kerr left journalism and Hawaii News Now for a public relations job. That leaves it to Hawaii News Now to do the appropriate follow up, so we, as citizens of this state, can judge how well our sheriff’s deputies are performing their duties as our public servants.

They could be doing a great job, as Tsuha claims. Or, as Kerr suggested, maybe some aren’t.

How are we to know, with Kerr not following the SPJ Code of Ethics and the government agency acting so inappropriately secretive? Those allegations are, as Kerr, said, “hard to believe.” So Hawaii News Now needs to follow the SPJ Code and show, with specifics, why we should.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.