A judge has at least temporarily blocked the city from releasing the names of current and past undercover officers at the request of the statewide police union.
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers sued the city earlier this month after city attorneys determined that police officers’ names, except for officers in “deep” undercover positions, should be released in response to Civil Beat’s request for the information to include in its public employee salary database.
SHOPO believes the names of any officer who is or has ever been in any undercover assignment should be protected from disclosure, not just those currently in deep undercover roles.
First Circuit Court judge Virginia Crandall said Thursday that the “danger of irreparable harm of the officers” warranted halting the release of names. Disclosing officers’ titles and salary ranges was in the public interest, she said.
The state’s public records law requires the release of public employee names, titles and salaries, except for “present or former employees involved in an undercover capacity in a law enforcement agency.”
After the hearing, SHOPO attorney Keani Alapa said union attorneys will be “asking the judge to tell us what the law says, and whatever she decides, we’ll follow.” The next hearing is scheduled Oct. 26.
SHOPO is looking to block the release of the names of current and former undercover officers ranking lieutenant or below, Alapa said during the hearing. He argued the city hadn’t addressed the “former employees” language in the law and called it “a blanket exemption.”
HPD had taken the position that it would disclose the names of officers who don’t hide their ties to the department, such as former undercover officers who testify in court.
Duane Pang, an attorney for the city, said during the hearing that the city “would never release information to jeopardize employee safety.” Instead, the city wants to release the names of officers who no longer work undercover and are “back to normal police officer duty.”
Hawaii’s public records law also states a person’s “individual privacy interest” must be balanced with the interest of public access when determining whether the release of information would be “a clearly unwarranted” invasion of privacy.
The city wouldn’t be disclosing any information that isn’t already in the public domain, Pang said. If an officer’s name is already out there, his or her privacy interest is diminished.
“There is clearly a public interest in being aware of who the government hires,” he said.
After Thursday’s hearing, Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said the HPD’s intention to withhold names of officers with safety concerns, but release the names of those who have been publicly identified as an officer, was reasonable.
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