Honolulu police leaders – in cop parlance – just need to come clean.

Like with other secretive bureaucracies in Hawaii, the more administrators try to hide information from their constituents, the more everyone suffers. When unsavory details eventually emerge, community goodwill toward police can get obliterated by a single cover-up, let alone the recent string of them.

Even if the Honolulu Police Department doesn’t end up adopting body cameras, the agency should be on notice that every person on this island now is a potential citizen journalist, carrying a smartphone camera and working the police beat.

HPD Police DUI Sobriety checkpoint Alapai Street. 5 may 2016.
Honolulu police conducted a sobriety checkpoint on Alapai Street in May. Good cops are harmed when the department covers for officers who get in trouble. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Professional journalists meanwhile have been digging around to bring local police practices to light, including Rob Perez’s recent series “Crossing the Line” in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, in which dozens of current HPD officers were identified as having been “taken to court over criminal or civil allegations of wrongdoing, ranging from excessive force to domestic abuse.”

Perez’s series was just the latest effort by local journalists to show public stakeholders the numerous abuses of power happening behind the shield of authority. Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube’s “In the Name of the Law” series, in 2013, revealed the lengths at which local police have political power to hide and dismiss bad behavior by their own. It also documented, over a 13-year period, that HPD officers were being discharged or suspended, on average, once a week. You read that right, once a week.

But the public rarely finds out these gritty details unless journalists happen to hear about and report the story, as Lynn Kawano of Hawaii News Now often does, including her piece earlier this summer about a $6 million discrimination lawsuit against HPD that frustrated lawmakers argued should have been prevented. (You do know, by the way, who paid that bill? Y-O-U taxpayers!)

Those examples by Perez, Grube and Kawano are the grinding kind of work that professional journalists undertake for their communities. That’s not a service easily replaceable by bloggers, social media gadflies and YouTubers.

Let’s just look back to what we have learned, thanks to journalists, about Oahu police during the past two years. We can start in September 2014, when the man too close to a monk seal was pepper-sprayed and beaten with a baton by an officer (an event captured on smartphone video, by a bystander, one of many recent examples of this type of citizen journalism focused on police, both locally and nationally).

We know from other examples that local police here have been allegedly involved in all sorts of shenanigans, dipping into prostitution, bribery, drunken driving, theft, kidnapping, sexual assault, etc. When officers commit crimes, others on the force have tried to cover it up instead of exposing and condemning the officers for their wrongdoings.

The strange criminal case embroiling HPD Chief Louis Kealoha right now is reflective of how suppression of information eventually will build up enough underground pressure to explode, causing a bad situation to become much worse. While I have no idea if Kealoha is guilty, I do know that his hush strategy damages his reputation (and the reputation of HPD) in the process.

If I thought HPD and the state Sheriff Division were filled with a bunch of bad people, I would leave it at that. But I have met many officers around the island and watched them do their work in various situations. For the most part, I think they are responsible, helpful, kind, diligent and conscientious people, just trying to serve their community and keep all of us safe.

But the police officers not doing anything wrong are getting unfairly maligned because of the actions of the few, the public relations policies of the leaders and their own silence on the matters. If any one of them protect this closed and covert culture (and the bad cops within it), then they also are a part of the problem.

The fix to this, though, is readily available, following the lead of so many other police departments around the country that have embraced integrated community policing philosophies.

All of the local police agencies — including the Sheriff Division, which is part of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, and HPD — should open up the departments to full public scrutiny, regardless of which powerful insiders might be exposed. These agencies should strive to speak more candidly and thoroughly about what police do, focused on procedural approaches to law enforcement.

A state sheriff's honor guard waiting for the late Sen. Gil Kahele's hearse to arrive at the Capitol, February 2016.
A state sheriff’s honor guard waiting for the late Sen. Gil Kahele’s hearse to arrive at the Capitol, February 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In other words, it shouldn’t matter if an on-duty police officer is followed at all times with a camera and a microphone, because that person represents the public (in a position entirely funded by the public). That person will be following the established police procedures for each situation and through this complete transparency, respecting our community’s views on law and order.

Anything less than upholding that standard disrespects the immense powers we have bestowed upon our police force.

Case in point: I’m still waiting, now four months later, to hear back about my simple and straightforward appeal to the Sheriff Division for the names of its commanding officers accused of being poorly trained and bungling cases. Former Hawaii News Now reporter Keoki Kerr had revealed on April 7 that high-level deputies were improperly trained and had been mishandling cases for decades. If Kerr’s reporting is correct, then those deputies should be held publicly accountable.

Yet Kerr only described the deputies in question by position; he did not name names. So I have had to go to absurd lengths, including filing a formal appeal to the state’s Office of Information Practices, to try to figure out who he was accusing. The Sheriff Division has declined to disclose even the most basic public information about its employees, which is, by the way, required by state law 92F-12(14).

Put simply, community policing does not have to be this way. Most cities did not form organized police departments until the mid-1800s. (Honolulu’s police force is less than 100 years old.) For a historical comparison, when the HPD celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2007, the Honolulu Advertiser had been publishing newspapers on Oahu for about twice that long. In other words, today’s HPD environment is not – as a cynic might argue – the way it’s always been. It can change, if people demand it.

While HPD and the Sheriff Division are not the only public agencies around here that suffer from this anti-democratic mindset of tolerating closed and corrupt governmental systems, they have the batons, tasers, guns and other sorts of intimidating weapons. So they should be fighting on the front line, and the hardest, for us to preserve the ideals they have sworn to protect.

In the short term, such openness and process debates might cause temporary discomfort and pain (especially to the crooks hiding under police disguises). But the payoff – and this is what I encourage every respectable officer on the force to consider – is that by demanding an open system and full accountability, the good officers will not be disparagingly lumped together with the bad any longer. When that happens, the community can look to their police without fear or embarrassment, instead seeing hope for a safer community in the future.

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.