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Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz is taking a new approach in two separate lawsuits that he said he hopes will force the state’s largest police department to address a “brotherhood culture of silence” that allows officer misconduct to persist despite numerous embarrassing arrests and proven harm to victims.
If successful, Seitz’s tactics could cost taxpayers millions of dollars more in legal settlements and court fees.
He said he’s also hoping to see some meaningful reform on the part of the Honolulu Police Department, which is now under new leadership after its former chief was indicted as part of a federal corruption investigation that netted also five other HPD officers and a city prosecutor.
“We’ve seen enough lack of responsibility at the higher levels of the Honolulu Police Department that people here are legitimately concerned,” Seitz said. “It’s been going on for many years. The police just don’t take responsibility for any conduct that’s questionable or dangerous.”
Over the past two months, Seitz has filed new civil complaints in cases involving two former Honolulu police officers who have both been sentenced in state court for their criminal conduct — one, Anson Kimura, for drunkenly shooting a bartender in the stomach, and the other, Keoki Duarte, for assaulting a truck driver on the H1 freeway after a car accident.
In both cases, Seitz argued that HPD officials knew — or at least should have known — that the officers were troubled before they injured their respective victims represented by Seitz. The city is a defendant in the suits.
He said administrators did little to address the officers’ behavior internally through discipline, counseling, treatment or training.
Instead, Seitz said Kimura and Duarte felt they could act with impunity due to HPD’s “de facto policy, practice, or custom” that ignored, condoned and in some cases, covered up for misconduct so long as it went unreported and remained out of the public eye.
Seitz argued that the HPD ignored Kimura’s well-established history of drinking and his signs of emotional distress, both of which should have prevented him from having a gun the night he shot Hyun Ju Park.
Seitz also laid out a theory that Kimura and two other officers who were drinking with him the night of the bartender shooting, Sterling Naki and Joshua Omoso, were being protected by HPD and others who showed up to investigate, including unnamed police union officials.
The latest complaint, filed in November, states that Kimura was never given a breathalyzer and that HPD initially classified the case as “a non-criminal matter.”
The complaint also stated that Kimura — who agreed to independently settle with Park for $300,000 — had been investigated by HPD’s internal affairs on at least three occasions — twice in 1999 and another time in 2003 — although the lawsuit says the department’s records related to those incidents don’t appear to be complete or accurate.
In Duarte’s case, which was filed earlier this month, Seitz argued that HPD knew he had an anger management problem before his December 2015 assault on truck driver Jonard Escalante, and could have stepped in to prevent it.
Duarte had been sued once before for excessive use of force along with several other officers in the brutal arrest of two hikers they mistook for burglars in 2012.
The Honolulu Police Commission found all the officers involved in that arrest, including Duarte, had violated the department’s standards of conduct. But it was later revealed that then-Police Chief Louis Kealoha reversed that decision and absolved the officers of any wrongdoing.
The city ultimately settled that lawsuit for $167,500.
To bolster his legal argument in both cases, Seitz highlighted a number of high-profile arrests, prosecutions and scandals that have afflicted the department in recent years, including those involving Kimura and Duarte.
In each instance, he said the department — in conjunction with the city, which is named as a defendant in the lawsuits — sought to “conceal” the misconduct and criminal wrongdoing.
Seitz specifically named HPD officers Duke Zoller, Aaron Bernal, Christopher Bugarin, Patrick Bugarin and Brian Morris, all of whom were accused by state prosecutors of falsifying police reports to get more overtime pay.
He also focused on a federal criminal case involving Vincent Morre, Nelson Tamayori and Joseph Becera, all of whom were charged after Morre was caught on surveillance video assaulting two men inside a game room while searching for a suspect.
Another officer named in the lawsuits is Darren Cachola. A video of Cachola beating his girlfriend inside a restaurant went viral and sparked calls for police reform related to domestic violence.
Seitz said he modeled his latest arguments after a case in Chicago in which a jury awarded a man $44.7 million after he was shot by his friend, a drunken off-duty Chicago police officer with a troubled past.
According to media reports, the officer, Patrick Kelly, had been drinking with his friend, Michael LaPorta, when he shot him in the back of the head with his service weapon.
Kelly, who was not charged criminally, initially tried to cover it up by saying that LaPorta, who was unable to talk for months after the shooting, had tried to kill himself.
During a civil trial LaPorta’s attorneys were able to convince the jury that Kelly was responsible for the shooting and that the Chicago Police Department had essentially enabled Kelly’s behavior and ignored early warning signs.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Kelly had been found mentally unfit for duty twice, arrested twice, sued six times, and investigated on dozens of occasions for his conduct both on and off duty. Kelly had been treated for alcohol addition and was accused of beating up a girlfriend.
LaPorta’s attorneys relied heavily on the institutional failures of the department in their arguments before the jury.
“They can’t get away with this,” said Andrea Diven, one of the jurors who spoke with the Tribune after the verdict was announced. “It’s something that’s embedded and it needs to change.”
Seitz said he’s hoping similar arguments will prevail in Hawaii.
And while bigger settlements are possible as a result, Seitz said he’s hoping the legal maneuvering will also serve as a wake-up call for HPD and others who want more accountability for officers.
“In Chicago, they tried the case on the theory that the police protect their own and that there’s a code of silence that creates an enhanced risk to the community,” Seitz said. “Ultimately, my hope is that the police here will adopt a more rigorous way of responding when officers are alleged to have engaged in conduct that threatens other people.”
The city’s Department of Corporation Counsel declined to comment on the lawsuits.
But in a motion responding to Seitz’s complaint in the Kimura case, city attorneys said the shooting was an accident that was not a “foreseeable consequence” of his employment with HPD. The attorneys also pointed out that Kimura, Naki and Omoso were all off-duty at the time.
According to the attorneys, “there is no indication that they were in uniform, were wearing a badge, or conducting any business on behalf of the Honolulu Police Department.”
The city has yet to file an official response to Duarte’s lawsuit.
Read the new complaints here: