Within a day of news reports this week that the state is being sued by a young woman who says she was assaulted by a law enforcement officer as a teen, a state senator says he will reintroduce legislation that could have prevented it.
We very much welcome that move. The problem is, we’ve been here before. What will it take for the Hawaii Legislature to finally do the right thing?
Let’s recap the sordid allegations that have led us to this stage, and that make it painfully obvious why change is urgently needed.
If officers are fired by one Hawaii police agency due to misconduct, there’s no way they should be hired by another one.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
Two years ago this week a 16-year-old girl was smoking pakalolo at a Big Island beach park when a uniformed officer with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources approached her.
The officer, Ethan Ferguson, promised not to bust the girl, instead asking for cash, drugs or sex. She refused all three, but Ferguson forced himself on her and was soon arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault.
That’s terrible. What’s also terrible is that Ferguson had been fired from the Honolulu Police Department four years earlier for falsifying reports and lying to investigators about transporting an underage runaway.
That’s right: A cop at the county level who had lost his badge, gun and uniform for misconduct involving a teen was hired to be a cop at the state level, even though the state had been warned about Ferguson’s record in advance.
But even that warning was flawed because, as the state says, the HPD was reluctant to provide many details, in part because it had already destroyed the record of Ferguson’s wrongdoing.
The incident is another in a long line of examples of state and county law enforcement agencies falling woefully short of needed oversight of their employees.
Look no further than the recent arrest and indictment of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor. Among their alleged accomplices are five other officers, all of whom have been charged with felonies for following along with the boss.
In spite of the public record, lawmakers failed to enact legislation to create a statewide standards and practices board that could also serve as a licensing agency of police officers.
If cops get in trouble or are determined to be unfit for duty in other states, they can lose their licenses and thus be ineligible for another job in law enforcement.
We are the only state that lacks such a board, and one of only a handful that doesn’t have a police certification program. That’s shameful and borderline criminal.
Another bill that failed would have created a statewide database of law enforcement officers who have been fired or forced to quit because of misconduct.
The same state senator who shepherded that legislation, Will Espero, told Civil Beat on Thursday that the Ferguson case once again illustrates the need to have state standards for all law enforcement agencies.
“We have multiple agencies that all do their own thing,” said Espero, a longtime voice for public safety reform (and a candidate for lieutenant governor). “When it comes to education, recruitment, training and re-education, there is no uniformity. It’s every agency for themselves.”
Espero continued: “In an ideal world, we would have our law enforcement officers equally trained for minimum standards, so that if they move from one division to another, we know that there are minimum standards that every state law enforcement officer must possess. That’s what we should expect.”
We will once again back Espero in his quest and hope that more of his colleagues join him, show some spine and ignore the BS from the statewide police officers’ union, which has resisted these needed reforms. The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers also fought against the release of police misconduct records, something Civil Beat has also strived for.
In 2014, the Legislature managed to take a step in that direction when it approved legislation, later signed into law, forcing county police chiefs to tell the Legislature how many officers were suspended or fired in a given year, and whether the disciplinary action resulted in criminal charges or was still subject to a union appeal.
Lawmakers may be tired of Civil Beat continuing to beat the drum on this. But don’t do it for us: Do it to keep people safe and restore trust in law enforcement.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell and Landess Kearns. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.