Renie Cablay’s family knew what Honolulu police officers were up against this summer when they confronted the 55-year-old waving a large knife at them in the courtyard of his Waipahu condo complex.
For years, the 55-year-old fought depression and paranoia. There was a troubled second marriage and co-worker disputes at the Hawaii Department of Public Safety where he held a job as a correctional officer, according to his son, Kevin Cablay.
Before he resigned from his job last year, Cablay threatened a neighbor with a machete, leading to a six-hour standoff that ended with his arrest last October. “I don’t think he got the help he really needed,” Kevin Cablay said.
Eight months later, Honolulu Police Department officers were called to a motor vehicle accident near the man’s home, where they found Cablay waving a small knife at them. Cablay refused officers’ demands to put the knife down and ran to his second-story apartment. In that tight space, Cablay reportedly lunged at officers and he was shot and killed.
Now, Cablay’s shooting death will be the first case taken up by the state’s new Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board.
The board creates a way for an entity outside the police department to review incidents in which officers injure or kill people.
The hard-fought police reform measure, authored by former state Sen. Will Espero, was passed by the Hawaii Legislature in 2016.
The law took effect last year and panel members met for the first time in June. The death of Cablay will be the first of several cases the panel will be reviewing.
“The Legislature passed it because they saw a need,” Espero said.
In Hawaii, officer-involved shootings are historically rare, but since June, there have been three.
In addition to Cablay, there was the July 20 shooting of Justin Waiki, a fugitive who spurred a manhunt after he shot Hawaii County Officer Bronson Kaimana Kaliloa. And on July 26, Gavalynn Mahuka was shot after he pointed his shotgun at HPD officers following a seven-hour standoff with police.
But the powers of the panel are limited.
By law, there must be at least four former prosecutors on the panel, a representative from the attorney general’s office, former judges and at least one former high-ranking police officer.
The law requires them to look at the evidence and determine only whether an officer can be charged with a crime as a result. If prosecutors decline to prosecute an officer, the panel’s findings will not be made public.
That narrow focus concerns some criminal justice experts. They also see the panel as too tilted in favor of police agencies and worry that its review will depend too heavily on the word of police investigators.
“I’m concerned it’s prosecutor heavy,” said Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, who teaches at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law. “They’re relying on information from the agencies they’re reviewing. So how is that independent?”
Lawson also believes that the board should have been designed to consider other remedies or improvements for officers, short of criminal charges.
“They’re limited to whether the police officer committed a crime versus whether he needs training,” Lawson said.
But Espero has faith in the board and in the agencies that deliver their own investigative findings to the board.
“The majority of our law enforcement officers and people in this area are law-abiding public servants and they understand their role in society,” Espero said. “This is an issue of faith in government. I have trust in our agencies to do something right.”
Former family law judge Iwalani White, who sits on the review board, rejects any criticism that the board will merely approve police investigators’ findings.
“We’re not a rubber stamp panel,” she said. “This is the very first board and we’ll see how it goes.”
If the board’s powers need to be tweaked, future legislative sessions can do just that, she said.
Officer-involved shootings usually spur at least two investigations: an internal one within a police department to determine if the officer who discharged a weapon acted appropriately, in addition to the criminal investigation into a suspect.
Unlike most large mainland police departments, the names of police officers in Hawaii who are involved in shootings that injure or kill individuals are not released until after the criminal investigation has been completed.
That air of secrecy, plus the fact that former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha is under federal indictment, along with his prosecutor wife Katherine, for corruption and abuse of power charges, has crippled trust with community members, some whom doubt the review panel will be as independent as advertised.
“If we look at what’s happing within the Honolulu Police Department … it does raise concerns about impartiality,” said Carrie Ann Shirota, the lead organizer for the Hawaii Justice Coalition. “In order to have impartiality I think it’s important to have a broader composition.”
Meanwhile, Cablay’s family members would like to know more about what happened and why officers shot him multiple times.
“I understand they had might have to shoot, but to shoot three times, I don’t understand that,” Kevin Cablay said.
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