The disciplinary records of all public servants in Hawaii — except police officers — are available to the public.
Police disciplinary records can only be made public when an officer is fired. Suspensions, even lengthy ones, are not disclosed and the public can’t find out names and other details.
An amendment to House Bill 1849 passed Thursday would mandate the same disclosure of police officers’ disciplinary records as applied to other public employees. It would eliminate the requirement to conduct a case-by-case balancing test between “the public interest in disclosure” and “the privacy interests of the individual” that’s currently required.
If the premise of HB 1849 sounds familiar, that’s because lawmakers introduced a similar measure last year. And in 2016, 2015 and 2014.
The amended bill was passed unanimously during a joint hearing Thursday of the Senate committees on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, and Labor. The original version of the bill would only have required disclosure of disciplinary records upon an officer’s second suspension from work.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, chair of the Labor Committee, said she proposed the amendment after listening to testimony.
‘People Need To Have Their Faith Restored’
Police officers, like other public officials, are held to a higher standard, Tokuda told Civil Beat. The exemption “calls (public) confidence into question,” she said.
As first responders, police officers have enormous public trust placed in them, Tokuda said.
“People need to have their faith restored,” she said.
Despite the fact that similar bills have failed in the past, Tokuda said there’s a growing call for additional transparency in police departments.
Tokuda, a member of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, said transparency at all levels of government is a “paramount” issue to the group. The caucus has been in talks with people and groups calling for policy changes that would bring more openness to government.
The caucus is also extremely concerned about domestic violence and sex assault, she said. Those offenses are sometimes cited as reasons for police officers’ suspensions, according to legislative reports.
Sen. Roz Baker, a leader of the women’s caucus who voted to pass the bill, said the group has introduced legislation to ensure “there’s accountability at all levels for domestic violence” and “survivors are protected.”
Victims should get justice even if the perpetrator is a police officer, she said. Asked if she thinks the bill has a better chance of passing this year, Baker said “sometimes it takes two or three times for a bill to get through.”
The caucus noticed that domestic violence was an issue in many officer suspensions, said Sen. Laura Thielen, a caucus leader who also voted in support of the bill. There’s a need for more transparency, especially in cases of officers who are repeat offenders, she said.
She pointed to another measure, House Bill 2133, that would allow citizens to file a domestic abuse complaint against an officer without requiring a notarized sworn or written complaint that would identify the complainant.
“We’ve been seeking to have some re-examination of those internal policies for some time,” Thielen said.
HB 1849 now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Brian Taniguchi — if he decides to hear the bill. After a moment of hesitation during Thursday’s hearing, he ultimately voted to pass HB 1849. Taniguchi is also a member of the Labor Committee.
“It was a bit of a pregnant pause,” Tokuda said.
Taniguchi killed a similar measure, Senate Bill 2947, by declining to hear it in his committee this session. That bill, co-sponsored by Tokuda and Baker, called for public disclosure of disciplinary records for all branches of law enforcement, not just county police officers.
“It’s always a little concerning when companion (similar) measures don’t move,” Tokuda said, adding it’s encouraging that Taniguchi voted Thursday to pass the House bill.
Taniguchi said he isn’t sure whether he will hear HB 1849 in his committee yet, but he’s inclined to do so.
Asked why he hesitated before voting to pass the bill last week, Taniguchi recalled riding with an officer as part of a requirement in law school at the University of Hawaii Manoa. That experience made him more sensitive to “what police have to go through when they do their jobs,” he said, noting other state employees — whose disciplinary records must be publicly disclosed — perform different work.
“I’m not clear about if there’s a real need for the bill or what the problem is,” he said.
The earlier version of HB 1849 would only have applied to a handful of officers, said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. That included officers suspended for failing to show up for court repeatedly or other offenses that aren’t of much interest to the public.
Black said it’s telling that the state police union didn’t oppose the bill — at least before it was amended.
The law center opposed that version of the bill because it wouldn’t have brought any meaningful degree of transparency, Black said.
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