A woman has filed a lawsuit against the state after she was sexually assaulted by a Department of Land and Natural Resources officer.
The officer, Ethan Ferguson, had been hired by DLNR after he was fired for misconduct by the Honolulu Police Department. He is also a defendant in the suit, which alleges negligence on the part of the state and claims the plaintiff suffered physical and emotional distress after she was assaulted at the age of 16.
The gist of the lawsuit filed in Third Circuit Court on the Big Island is that DLNR officials should have known that Ferguson was a danger to the community since they had already been warned of his past behavioral problems.
Ferguson was fired by the Honolulu Police Department in 2012 for misconduct involving a teenage runaway. The department had told DLNR not to hire Ferguson when he applied to become an officer with DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.
The state hired him anyway to work in Hawaii County, allowing him to again don a law enforcement uniform and arm himself with a gun and a badge.
“If he had never been hired this would have never happened,” said Jeremy Butterfield, one of two Big Island attorneys representing the woman.
Ferguson’s case is an example of the failures of the state, counties and their individual police agencies when it comes to oversight and keeping bad cops off the job.
Civil Beat first reported about Ferguson’s termination in 2014 after it was revealed to the Legislature in an annual misconduct report that he was fired by HPD for falsifying records and lying to investigators about transporting an underage female runaway.
But when Civil Beat asked HPD for the records regarding his termination, the department said they had already been destroyed pursuant to its own rules that require officials to get rid of police officers’ disciplinary files 30 months after launching an internal affairs investigation.
Ferguson was hired in June 2013 by DLNR despite HPD’s warnings. But like the public, the agency was kept largely in the dark about his prior misconduct within the state’s largest law enforcement agency.
Less than three years later, in January 2016, Ferguson was arrested and charged with five counts of sexual assault of a minor in the case that eventually resulted in the Dec. 27 lawsuit against him and the state.
According to court records, the victim, who was 16 at the time, was smoking marijuana at Lalakea Beach Park on the Big Island when she was approached by Ferguson, who was wearing his DOCARE uniform. He said he wouldn’t arrest her if she paid him off with money, drugs or sex.
When she refused, he forced himself on her anyway. He was eventually convicted of two counts of second-degree sexual assault and three counts of fourth-degree sexual assault.
Among the measures Espero has introduced — some of which could have prevented Ferguson’s hiring by DLNR — were the creation of a statewide standards and practices board that could also serve as a licensing agency of cops.
Under such a proposal, if officers get into trouble or are deemed unfit for duty their licenses can be revoked, which would prevent them from getting another job in law enforcement.
Hawaii is one of only a handful of states without a licensing program for police officers and the only one without a statewide standards and training board.
Espero also introduced legislation specific to Ferguson. The senator proposed creating a statewide database of law enforcement officers who have been terminated or forced to resign due to misconduct.