The Legislature appears ready to make Hawaii the last state in the country to adopt minimum standards for law enforcement officers after Senate negotiators accepted a new proposal from their House counterparts.

House Bill 2071 originally proposed creation of a law enforcement standards board with the power to set minimum requirements, training standards for officers, and a licensing and certification process. Hawaii already licenses many other professions, including massage therapists, private security guards and barbers.

Last month the Senate passed a draft that altered the bill substantially, calling instead for a group to study the concept of such a board and for prohibiting officers fired for misconduct from being rehired by another law enforcement agency in the state.

Rep Scott Nishimoto speaks with Chair Aaaron Johanson before reconvening the HPD measure in conference committee meeting.
Rep Scott Nishimoto, middle, speaks with Rep. Aaron Johanson during conference committee discussion of the police standards legislation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Wednesday the bill was heard in conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers try to work through differences. House negotiators provided their Senate counterparts with a new, proposed draft that would create a standards board — not study it.

Senate negotiators voted to pass the draft Thursday. It will now be the subject of floor votes in both chambers. The previous versions of the bill won unanimous support in floor votes.

Civil Beat first reported in 2013 that Hawaii was the only state without a police standards board. The next year, Sen. Will Espero introduced legislation to create one.

This is the fifth year lawmakers have pushed for such a board.

“That’s a huge win, legislators have been working on it for years and for it to finally pass, it’s huge,” said Rep. Scott Nishimoto, introducer of this year’s bill and chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “And I think it shows that legislators and the public know that there’s been issues in the past and that we need to do something to correct it.”

The proposal got a boost when the case of Ethan Ferguson went public. The former Honolulu police officer who was fired for misconduct then moved to the Big Island and raped a teenage girl while on duty as a state Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officer.

HB 2071 has been generally supported by state departments, but opposed by all county police departments.

The Honolulu, Hawaii and Maui county police departments wrote in testimony that they already do a good job of recruiting, training and disciplining their officers.

Honolulu Deputy Police Chief John McCarthy pointed to his department’s accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which he called “the highest level of accreditation given to law enforcement agencies.”

“Our concern is the additional layer of bureaucratic oversight … By establishing a ‘certification process’ the bill in essence strips the hiring authority from the chief of police and places it in the hands of the proposed board,” wrote the Kauai Police Department in testimony.

It’s unusual for police chiefs to oppose standards boards, said Roger Goldman, a leading expert on police licensing and revocation law. He said that legislatures in other states have specifically stated that offenses such as sexual misconduct or drug use are grounds for decertification.

Disciplinary Records For Officers Still Private

Lawmakers on Thursday killed House Bill 1849, which would have made the disciplinary records of police officers available to the public. Currently officers’ disciplinary records can only be made public if they’re fired.

The Senate had amended the bill to say that disciplinary records of police officers should be public record, as is true for other government employees. The House had maintained that such records should be open to public disclosure only upon an officer’s second offense in five years.

Brian Black, director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said the House draft of the bill would have only applied to a handful of officers.

The bill’s final conference committee hearing began about an hour before a scheduled floor vote. Thursday marked the deadline for lawmakers to finalize and vote on bills that don’t require a financial appropriation, such as HB 1849.

Nishimoto, introducer of HB 1849, said he would be willing to introduce similar legislation in the future.

“We didn’t want to move forward until we had something that had broad support and right now, it’s a mixed bag,” Nishimoto said. “I’m OK with us working on it next session, especially in light of passing the standards board bill.”

Join the conversation in-person at Civil Beat’s upcoming Civil Cafe event, “Legislative Wrap-up 2018,” on Wednesday, May 2, at noon at the Capitol. Go to our RSVP page to register and get more information. 

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