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Hawaii lawmakers so far haven’t had much of an appetite for passing police reform legislation this year, despite widespread concerns both locally and nationally about the need for more accountability of law enforcement.
Only a handful of reform measures are still alive after a Friday deadline that shed scads of bills from the upcoming legislative agenda.
Among the police measures that survived are Senate Bill 519, which would make it easier for victims of domestic violence at the hands of a police officer to file a complaint against their perpetrator to avoid the possibility of retaliation.
Two bills that would allow for more disclosure of county police officer misconduct are also still on the table.
Senate Bill 424 and House Bill 456 would change Hawaii’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, to allow an officer’s disciplinary records to be made public if that individual had been suspended twice in five years.
As it stands, county police officers are the only public employees in the state whose disciplinary files are afforded special protection under the public records law.
Under the law, an officer’s name and disciplinary actions can be made public only if they’ve been fired for misconduct. Officers merely suspended for wrongdoing, however, are allowed to remain anonymous based on a decades old exemption in the public records statute that was implemented at the behest of the state’s politically powerful police union.
That’s not the case for other public workers.
Acting Honolulu Police Chief Cary Okimoto has supported the transparency measures, telling his officers in a Feb. 10 memo that he believed the terms were “fair.”
Okimoto was appointed as acting chief after his predecessor, Louis Kealoha, was pressured to resign after being named as a target in a wide-ranging corruption investigation that also includes allegations of wrongdoing by his wife, Katherine, who is a high-ranking city prosecutor.
“Providing more information to the public, including information on officer misconduct, is necessary for the community to have confidence in its police department,” Okimoto wrote. “For many of us, this is a major shift in perspective. However, a shift is necessary if we are to serve our community effectively and justly in the future.”
But there are still questions about the effectiveness of SB 424 and HB 456.
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, submitted testimony to the Legislature saying that the bills don’t “measurably increase public access to information about police discipline.”
The law center is an independent nonprofit that advocates for open government and transparency. It also provides free legal advice and, on occasion, representation to members of the media and the public relating to those issues.
Specifically, Black cited annual reports that county police departments submit to the Legislature that indicate how many officers have been suspended or fired for misconduct. Those reports have only required county police departments to link multiple incidents to the same officer since 2015.
“It is not apparent from the reports that many, if any, officers have been suspended twice or more within five years,” Black said.
According the reports from the Honolulu Police Department, there were 171 incidents of officer misconduct that resulted in an officer being suspended or fired for misconduct from 2014-2016. Of those, only 33 incidents appear to involve repeat offenders.
But many of those officers were discharged, meaning they wouldn’t be affected by the new legislation. In fact, it appears that only six officers who account for 12 incidents of misconduct — based on the limited information that’s been made available so far — would be affected.
A Civil Beat analysis of HPD’s annual misconduct reports show that from 2000-2016 officers have been suspended or terminated for at least 718 incidents of wrongdoing.
Some, including state Sen. Will Espero, who has been one of the most vocal advocates for reform in Hawaii, has supported getting rid of the public records exemption for county officers altogether. But his bill and others like it have not been successful.
Other measures that have stalled out this year include those that would have have set rules and provided money for the implementation of body-worn cameras.
Bills that would reform the state’s asset forfeiture program to require a conviction before law enforcement can profit from taking someone’s possessions also died, as has a proposal to set minimum qualifications for county police commissioners so at least some have backgrounds in law, women’s equality and civil rights.
Two measures that would get rid of a one-year residency requirement before someone could be hired as a county police chief are also still working through the Legislature.
The Honolulu Police Commission has been backing a change the law so that out-of-state candidates can apply for the opening left by Kealoha’s departure.