Think of the most secretive arm of the government and the most vulnerable high-stakes targets in the world.

If you skipped past the Secret Service, the CIA and the NSA to picture the Hawaii’s Sheriff Division – including the security guards at the Capitol in Honolulu who protect Gov. David Ige and other luminaries — then your level of paranoia aligns perfectly with that of the state’s Department of Public Safety.

Since former Hawaii News Now reporter Keoki Kerr revealed on April 7 that high-level deputies in the state’s Sheriff Division lacked proper training and potentially have been bungling cases for decades, The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and I have been trying to find out the names of these people that Kerr incriminated.

If Kerr’s reporting is correct, then these deputies should be held publicly accountable; if Kerr’s reporting is incorrect, then HNN should retract the story and be held publicly accountable.

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 Division officers stand in the rotunda of the Capitol Building before the opening of the 2015 legislature in January. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Sheriff Division is standing in the way of resolution, and so was Kerr (who has since left the station for a job with the state teachers union), with his method of reporting. That is because – contrary to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics’ prescriptions about anonymity – Kerr used specific job descriptions instead of names to identify three of these high-ranking deputies in question. He labeled them only as: “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 sheriffs’ patrols at the state Capitol.”

Until those names are released, such reporting serves no one except Kerr, allowing him to have his “exclusive” scoop but not really pin it on anyone in particular or allow for anyone else to check his work.

Kerr’s level of specificity, though, did allow us to identify equivalent law-enforcement officers at The White House, working under the Department of Homeland Security, protecting President Barack Obama. So, to compare responses, both Brian Black, the Civil Beat law center’s president and executive director, and I submitted public records requests around the same time.

More Secret Than The Secret Service

On April 22, Black submitted a request to the U.S. Secret Service asking for the name of the “current division chief or agent in charge of the Uniformed Services Division,” which provides security for the White House complex, the vice president’s Naval Observatory residence, the Treasury Department building and for foreign diplomats in Washington, D.C. He also asked for the name of the “current division chief or agent in charge of the Presidential Protection Division,” which guards the president and vice president of the United States and their families, former presidents, foreign heads of state and major presidential and vice presidential candidates.

On June 8, 47 days later, at no charge, Black received the names: Kevin Simpson (Chief, Uniformed Division) and Michael White (Special Agent in Charge, Presidential Protective Division).

Secret Service scans a woman near Mid Pacific Country Golfclub near President Obama's motorcade. 21 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A Secret Service agent scans a woman outside Mid Pacific Country Club, near President Obama’s motorcade, in December 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I started more than a week earlier, on April 14, trying to find out who the Hawaii equivalents are and now, 67 days into this, I have received two rejections from the Department of Public Safety. The second of those came through an appeal to the Office of Information Practices, with the department declining to release the names on the specious argument that these deputies are “working in an undercover capacity” and that doing so would be a “frustration of a legitimate government function.”

This “frustration” exemption has become a popular catch-all argument for local government officials who don’t want to release public information but don’t have a valid reason to say no. It’s a comical application, in this case and in many others, because the only “frustration of a legitimate government function” that really happens is that members of the public aren’t allowed to examine documents they are legally entitled to see. That is very frustrating!

The Public Right To Know

On the most fundamental level, we pay taxes to support public services, including law enforcement. So we have the right to see how and where our money is being spent on those services. In other words, we pay for the police, like any other service, and almost all of the records created and maintained by the police should be open to us stakeholders, who care about our community’s policing efforts.

There are exceptions, of course, such as not disclosing when and where a raid is going to happen. But, for the most part, police business should be open business. We are, you know, giving people guns and the authority to kill others in the name of public safety.

The people of Hawaii understand this need for openness well and support it. That’s why we communally passed the Uniform Information Practices Act to broadly open state and county government records. It’s also why we maintain an Office of Information Practices to field complaints and make appeals about public agencies that contradict those open-records principles.

In turn, you might think that since we pay all government employees through our taxes, we also have the right to know who works in the government and what exactly they do for this pay. That is common sense. It’s also the law, 92F-12(a)(14), which specifically requires the Department of Public Safety to provide employee names, job titles, job descriptions, etc.

After public safety officials declined to release that most basic information (of who does what), we appealed the denial. The department first delayed its response, saying that the employee who should respond would be “out of the office” until June. Then, when the second denial arrived, Shelley Nobriga, DPS’s litigation coordination officer, added the “undercover” capacity argument.

It seems implausible that these managers of many deputies in public spaces might suddenly throw on their disguises and go “undercover.” And the argument that they are so special and privileged that their identities should be cloaked even more than the people doing similar jobs in Washington, D.C., guarding the president of the most powerful country on the planet and foreign heads of state, is milk-out-of-the-nose laughable.

Digging A Hole Of Secrecy

So what’s really going on here? By all appearances, somebody has something to hide and the more the Department of Public Safety tries to keep these names out of the public sphere, the guiltier it looks and the worse it reflects on the police force and the department overseeing it, led by Nolan Espinda (who declined to return my calls).

Police in this state suffer from a negative public perception already for many reasons. Digging themselves deeper into a hole of secrecy is not going to change that.

The good and high-quality police officers in this state – and I know there are many – simply need to start by acknowledging who is responsible for what and being accountable to themselves and the public. Opening up the system for greater public scrutiny is a path toward weeding out the problems and regaining public trust.

Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry understands this. He launched the state’s first body camera program (against union objections). Newly nominated Honolulu Police Commission candidate Loretta Sheehan gets it, too. She stated as core to her appointment the idea that “it would really serve the Police Department to be more transparent.” State Sen. Will Espero understands it as well; he tried to get the state to create a database of bad cops, so those who had been fired or forced to resign because of misconduct could be blocked from showing up again in different Hawaii communities. But his efforts inexplicably were scuttled by other lawmakers.

The “frustration” exemption has become a popular catch-all argument for local government officials who don’t want to release public information but don’t have a valid reason to say no.

Now that this Sheriff Division issue has been raised, the people of Hawaii deserve to know whether the leaders of the division have been handling cases appropriately or the journalist, Kerr, was making false claims about them.

This cannot remain unresolved without both journalists and police losing credibility in the community. So that’s where other journalists need to participate and follow this story. That’s where Sheriff Division leaders need to open up and be transparent with us.

Even finding the name of the sheriff on the department’s web site is a chore; searching the term “sheriff” actually identifies the since-demoted officer Robin Nagamine as “new” in 2013. Using Google, though, I was able to identify that an even newer sheriff had been appointed, Renee Sonobe Hong, and that her first deputy, the one identified by Kerr as “the no. 2 person who is in charge of more than 300 deputies statewide,” is Al Cummings.

We’re still waiting to learn who these other two officers are – “the deputy sheriff in charge of the governor’s security detail” and “the deputy sheriff who oversees sheriffs’ patrols at the state Capitol” – to try to determine whether Kerr is right or these officers deserve an apology. If you can locate that information (and are willing to share your process for finding it), please post it to the comments here, and I’ll give you some citizen journalist credit in a future column.

In the meantime, we’ll keep trying to get this information into the hands of who it belongs to – or should belong to: you.

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.