A state senator is calling for a criminal investigation into an alleged cover-up of an incident in which a black man was reportedly pepper-sprayed by a state sheriff’s deputy while the man was sitting handcuffed in the rear of a patrol car.

Sen. Will Espero, who has long served on the Senate Public Safety Committee, told Civil Beat that the incident, if true, would rise to the level of being a criminal assault.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin “might want to step in and look into this because what’s alleged here is very serious,” said Espero, who learned about what happened through a series of documents — an incident report and memos from within the Hawaii Department of Public Safety — that he received last week.

Senator Will Espero speaks to HART CEO Dan Grabauskas after joint conference committee moved to next week. 23 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Sen. Will Espero: “From my perspective, it looks like this really happened.”

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The documents — which Espero shared with Civil Beat — show that the incident began when two deputies assigned to the airport section of the Sheriff Division made a traffic stop near Waiwai Loop and Lagoon Drive.

The deputies arrested a man who was driving a gold Mercedes Benz on an outstanding warrant and took him to “the sheriff airport receiving station,” the incident report states. Once there, the man was allegedly pepper-sprayed by one of the deputies while handcuffed behind his back in the rear of the patrol car.

It’s unclear what triggered the incident, and none of Espero’s documents indicate when it happened. But the incident report indicates that the episode was videotaped, and the footage was reviewed by multiple deputies.

The incident report also indicates that the deputies didn’t “detox” the man immediately, leaving him with eyes “swollen with tears and mucus emitting from his face.” And, when the man asked to file a complaint, a sergeant told him, “You can’t make any complaints here.”

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, told Civil Beat that the incident “possibly occurred prior to February 2013.”

Schwartz added that the department’s current leadership didn’t learn about the incident until March 2016 — when a whistleblower inside the Sheriff Division shared information about what happened.

According to Espero’s documents, the whistleblower — a deputy who now works in the airport section but didn’t witness the incident — wrote a memo to then-Sheriff Renee Sonobe Hong to question how it was being investigated.

“I believe that the integrity of this investigation has been compromised,” the deputy wrote, claiming that a sergeant put in charge of conducting the investigation was involved in the incident himself.

Last month, the deputy wrote a memo to Nolan Espinda, director of the Department of Public Safety, and to his subordinates, including Sonobe Hong — who served as sheriff from October 2015 to earlier this year and now heads the department’s Law Enforcement Division — and new Sheriff Albert Cummings.

“I am greatly concerned and appalled that the Department of Public Safety, sheriff division, (has) done nothing to the best of my knowledge to address, investigate or otherwise hold accountable certain individuals for reported criminal actions, civil rights violations, as well as standard of conduct violations,” the deputy wrote.

Schwartz declined to discuss details of the incident, citing “the currently open investigation.” But she noted: “Any allegations of a cover-up are taken seriously by this administration.”

Espero said he wants the department to brief him on the allegations this week.

“From my perspective, it looks like this really happened. And, if it did, I want to hear from Director (Espinda) on what he’s planning on doing about it because it does appear like there was a cover-up — or at least no follow-up,” said Espero, who has also notified Chin’s office about the incident. “Hopefully, they will prove me wrong but, until I hear otherwise, there’s a big question mark hanging over the department.”

Joshua Wisch, special assistant to Chin, declined to say whether an investigation will be launched.

“We just recently received the request from Senator Espero and are currently reviewing it,” Wisch said. “There’s nothing further we can say at the moment.”

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