No matter the issue or the players, the legislative process is typically one of fits and starts, negotiation and compromise. It definitely isn’t a game for those lacking patience or easily frustrated by roadblocks.
But patience isn’t — and shouldn’t be — endless. Sometimes righteous anger is essential to move a critical issue forward in the best interests of the public. Reforming policing in Hawaii is exactly such an issue.
As Civil Beat’s Nick Grube detailed earlier this week in his report, “Why Is It So Hard To Pass Police Reform In Hawaii?,” the problems that need to be addressed are hardly new; and bills to tackle them have been kicking around the Capitol for several legislative sessions. Lawmakers have had more than enough time to hash things out and develop consensus around reform measures, the need for which Hawaii police illustrate with alarming regularity.
With less than eight months until the filing deadline for legislation to be considered in the 2017 session, we need a game plan now to make next year the one when lawmakers stop discussing police reform and begin making it happen.
Persistent advocates such as Sens. Will Espero, former chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, Laura Thielen and Roz Baker have provided welcome leadership in putting reform measures in front of their colleagues. But those colleagues need to step up.
Gov. David Ige, who has been studiously silent on police reform, should lead the charge. Having brought relative peace and progress to the festering Thirty Meter Telescope conflict on Mauna Kea, Ige ought to recognize the value of tackling a problematic issue before it reaches crisis level. It shouldn’t take a #BlackLivesMatter moment, or some other controversy borne of tragedy, to focus the governor’s attention on reform.
In the run-up to this year’s legislative session, Civil Beat outlined four reform measures we believed could fundamentally improve law enforcement throughout Hawaii. Only one of them, an independent board to review police shootings and deaths in custody, passed: Senate Bill 2196. But it includes a potentially problematic provision that makes board findings public only after all court proceedings related to a shooting or death are completed. That could keep critical findings secret for years in high-profile cases.
As lawmakers plan for 2017, then, the following matters should be on the table, along with specific plans on how legislators will get them through a House and Senate that, so far, have proven troublingly reluctant on law enforcement reform.
Training and standards board. Hawaii continues to hold the dubious distinction of being the only state without state-certified standards for police officers. We are also one of six without a license-revocation process for officers found guilty of wrongdoing or who otherwise don’t meet standards.
What good is possibly served by failing to ensure minimum standards in hiring and basic training around the state? And yet, legislation to address this need — Senate Bill 2755 — was allowed to die in conference committee on the final day of consideration for bills with fiscal impact.
We see this as potentially the most significant reform measure, given its ability to improve law enforcement professionalism around Hawaii. As legislators consider its path for 2017, they should include the provisions for certification and decertification of police officers that were cut from the measure this year.
The capacity of body cameras to protect officers against false charges of misconduct and to capture police misconduct when it does occur explains why these devices have become commonplace around the country.
Body cameras. Legislators came close but failed to pass a bill to have county police departments outfit their officers with body cameras. Senate Bill 2411 made it through the House and Senate, but lawmakers couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve differences between their measures; so like the training and standards board bill, this one died in conference committee.
The capacity of body cameras to protect officers against false charges of misconduct and to capture police misconduct when it occurs explains why these devices have become commonplace in agencies around the country. Hawaii must join the 21st century by finally passing requirements and funding for body cameras in 2017.
Identifying officers in misconduct cases. In an appeal to the state Supreme Court, the state police union is challenging a lower court ruling that would force police to make public the identities and disciplinary records of officers found guilty of serious misconduct.
We emphasize “force” because late Circuit Court Judge John Lim ruled 22 years ago that such records should be disclosed, calling the public’s right to know “paramount” in such cases. Though the police union muscled legislation through the following year to exempt such records, the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that officers’ privacy interests are outweighed by the public interest when police misconduct is involved.
The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest brought the follow-up case that is before the high court now. It concerns disciplinary files for a dozen Honolulu Police Department officers who committed serious misconduct, but whose records are being shielded. It’s telling that the department itself declined to appeal the lower court verdict. It’s the union that’s fighting to keep the public in the dark.
The Supreme Court likely will rule before the next legislative session. If the union wins its appeal, lawmakers should waste no time in eliminating the disclosure exemption for cops who get caught driving drunk, lying to investigators or otherwise egregiously violating employment standards. As Judge Lim said so many years ago, the police force becomes better when the public’s right to know is honored.
Independent review board secrecy. Passing the independent review board legislation, which now awaits Ige’s consideration, was a definite step forward, despite the bill’s shortcoming regarding the secrecy of findings. Other deficiencies in the makeup of the actual board were addressed during session, with additional community representatives added to bring some balance to law enforcement and prosecutorial voices that dominate membership.
Lawmakers could do Hawaii a service by eliminating the secrecy provision in 2017. When the inevitable case is sent to the review board involving allegations of outrageous misconduct in a shooting or death, no amount of explaining will convince the public that it’s appropriate to keep the board’s findings confidential.
Passing the independent review board legislation, which now awaits Ige’s consideration, was a definite step forward, despite the bill’s shortcoming regarding secrecy of findings.
Police Commission. Though not a matter that will go before state legislators, the Honolulu Charter Commission likely will put a proposal before voters this fall that would beef up the powers of the Honolulu Police Commission, giving it greater authority to discipline the chief of police and to investigate officer conduct.
If voters need proof that the commission needs to be stronger, they need look no farther than embattled Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, currently under investigation by the FBI. Or at the case of two hikers who were mistaken for burglary suspects and brutally beaten by a group of eight police officers, none of whom were punished. Both cases illustrate the limited authority and general toothlessness of the commission.
It is up to the charter commission to craft a proposal that merits the support of Honolulu voters.
The above measures would be game changers for policing in this state. Legislators have had years to consider them, in some cases moving them within a hair’s breadth of passage, only to fall short.
No more excuses. Reform may be hard to pass here, but it can be done. For the sake of the public being policed, and for the sake of good officers who shouldn’t be tarnished by bad apples, 2017 must be the year legislators close the deal.