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Denny Santiago said what we already knew: “There is some pretty screwed up stuff going on in the (Honolulu) police department.”
The veteran officer stepped from the shadows recently and broke the corruptive “Blue Code of Silence.” He voiced his concerns in public testimony that put the Honolulu Police Commission directly on the spot to respond, and his heartfelt plea represented an opportune moment in the much-too-long Kealoha era to restore quality and pride in our community policing.
Santiago even brought along specific case numbers, in which he suspected corruption. So our precise starting point here has been delivered, on a platter, ready to be served. What are we going to do about it?
HPD belongs to all of us, not any chief or administrator. We pay for it, literally, providing the uniforms, the cars, the guns, the buildings, the salaries, the benefits, the retirement, etc. But we also cover the costs most abstractly, in how our society functions (or has dysfunctions) within the laws we create and how such authoritative power is distributed and wielded.
We support roughly 2,500 people working in HPD jobs, at an annual operating cost of $275 million. When we don’t get what we want from that huge annual investment — as it seems we haven’t in recent years — we should speak loudly and clearly and (maybe most importantly) in unison.
At least a couple of media companies on Oahu are coming together for such common good, as Civil Beat and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (as Oahu Publications Inc.) have teamed to challenge in court the Police Commission’s nonsensical policy of closing quasi-judicial hearings to the public when taxpayers are being asked to pay for attorneys in police misconduct cases.
This legal action should just be an opening salvo in our defense of the Sunshine Law, which citizens of this state wrote to include: “Opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”
There is no legislation or popular counter-argument saying we should protect the corrupt within our government from public scrutiny and shame. Those sorts of protective cover-ups are being made by rogue individuals who should be shooed from our house before they cause even worse infestation.
Two of the commissioners, Loretta Sheehan and Steven Levinson, consider such opaque Police Commission practices unconstitutional at both the state and federal level (and voted instead to keep proceedings open). Sheehan is a former assistant U.S. attorney, and Levinson is a retired associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court. Yet they were overruled by fellow commissioners with “regular citizen” backgrounds, not significant histories of crime-fighting or legal analysis.
“Opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.” — Hawaii’s Sunshine Law
Those credentials include being a hotel executive (chair Max Sword), a “choreographer and director of Polynesian shows” (vice chair Cha Thompson) and a CEO of a local Hawaiian barbecue restaurant chain (Eddie Flores Jr.). They were entrusted to do public good, and to represent us first, as any benevolent citizen might. They were not put in place to bury misdeeds in the sugarcane fields.
Our government is not intended to be a shady private business or a second-rate stage show; it is the primary foundation of the civilization we created through a democratic process. We — meaning you, too — are responsible for overseeing and maintaining that foundation. When that responsibility is abdicated, societal problems and corruption just get worse. This is happening on Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s watch, so, ultimately, he needs to take care of our public business and be answerable to us.
From a broader perspective, a waning engagement of the electorate in all civic matters at all levels has been leading us astray. Our mindless adherence to the obsolete Electoral College, for example, has allowed a mentally unstable charlatan with roughly 3 million fewer votes than his competitor to take the highest office in the land (how about one person equals one vote?). But the signs of a dangerous societal shift toward a tolerance of secrecy and widespread graft in government are omnipresent.
All sorts of apolitical federal entities — such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have been significantly restricted in sharing public information this year. Or worse, they have become political targets or political weapons.
I have written often about corrupt and secretive practices of the local police, including HPD but also the state Sheriff’s Division. A new example emerged earlier this month, when public problems extended to the Paroles and Pardons department, under Tommy Johnson. His lawyer claimed that Johnson’s recent six-month “reassignment” was due to a “minor disposition of a disagreement” over the use of a cell phone.
What really happened with our public resources here? We don’t know and probably will never know, unless the enforcement community’s culture about transparency and public accountability changes.
Everyone would benefit, especially the good officers. There are many of those, presumably like Santiago, who came to the Police Commission to request help in cleaning up the mess.
(By the way, I’m still waiting — almost two years now — for my only state Office of Information Practices request to learn which high-level deputies in the state might have lacked proper training and potentially been bungling cases for decades. If you don’t care about police malpractice, I guess, what’s a few more months or years?)
We have good laws and regulations in place. We can’t clean up all of the country’s problems overnight, but we thoroughly can scrub our own house, starting with the people entrusted to keep us safe and secure.
Journalists can do their part, by writing and producing stories about the problems, and even suggesting solutions. An initial step, for example, would be for media members to contact Officer Santiago, ask him to share the corrupt case numbers and then independently investigate them. We then can gauge the Police Commission response against the evidence and findings they have, in open and transparent ways.
Journalists need to keep watch. The officers and the mayor are directly responsible. But, as a citizen, so are you. This sort of bad behavior will persist as long as you tolerate it.
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 email@example.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.