Hawaii licenses barbers, boxing event promoters and private security guards, but is one of five states without such standards for law enforcement officers. It’s the only state without a board to regulate officers and help keep bad cops off the street.

A measure to change that cleared another hurdle Tuesday when House Bill 2071 was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Will Espero has been pushing for a law enforcement standards board since Civil Beat first reported in 2013 that Hawaii was the only state without one. Rep. Scott Nishimoto, the Judiciary Committee chair, introduced his own bill this year.

“This is my first time introducing the bill, so I’m not sure (if it will pass),” Nishimoto said. “The current climate is ripe for this kind of reform. I think the public feels there’s a need for it and I think the legislators have a desire to look at this kind of legislation.”

Rep Scott Nishimoto Chair Judiciary committee meeting.
Rep. Scott Nishimoto at Tuesday’s hearing. He sees growing momentum for creating a police standards board. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nishimoto noted that HB 2071 was introduced as part of a police reform package. The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee, if Chair Sylvia Luke decides to give it a hearing.

It would establish an eight-member board with the power to set minimum performance standards, training requirements and continuing education. The board members would also have the ability to investigate officers, subpoena records and require officers to answer questions under oath, in writing.

The board could revoke an officer’s certification if they’re convicted of a felony or lie on an application.

Last year, Ethan Ferguson, a Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officer, was found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl at a Big Island beach park in 2016. Before working for DLNR, he was fired from the Honolulu Police Department for misconduct.

Last month, the victim sued the state.

HB 2071 could prevent officers like Ferguson from being hired again by requiring an officer’s license to be revoked if they are convicted of a felony while employed in law enforcement.

Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t regulate law enforcement officers. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The bill is supported by the state departments whose officers would be regulated under the bill  — Transportation, Taxation, Land and Natural Resources, and Attorney General.

But it’s opposed by leadership in the Maui and Hawaii county police departments, and that’s unusual, said Roger Goldman, a leading expert on police licensing and license revocation laws.

Normally police chiefs and sheriffs support bills to create statewide training standards, he said.

“They don’t want any board, any state agency telling them what to do,” Goldman said. “They want to be able to hire and fire anyone they want, keep anyone on the force no matter what.”

Many states with law enforcement standards boards require competency tests, similar to a bar exam for lawyers, Goldman said. Minimum standards set by some states rule out applicants who have been discharged from the military for bad conduct, for example.

It’s also common for states to require decertification of officers convicted of misdemeanors for sexual assault or perjury, Goldman said, but that is not a requirement of HB 2071. Legislatures in other states have specifically stated that offenses such as drug use or sexual misconduct render officers eligible for decertification.

In written testimony from last month, Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira called the standards board for officer certification an “extra layer of bureaucratic oversight.” Ferreira pointed to the department’s accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and said that entails training and annual reviews.

CALEA, however, has published a document on its website, written by the Police Foundation, detailing reasons that states should have such an entity to set standards and revoke credentials for officers who engaged in misconduct.

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