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When the state’s new police shooting board began its work this summer, it already had a full plate. Four fatal shootings were waiting to be reviewed by August, with three of them involving the Honolulu Police Department.
Two months later, the number of HPD-involved fatal shootings in 2018 has doubled, to six, the most ever in recent history, prompting concern among criminal justice experts about whether they’re seeing an overall trend of more violence in the Aloha State.
University of Hawaii sociology professor David Johnson, who has long followed policing issues, found the recent spate of six over four months, alarming.
“It’s certainly caught my attention,” he said. “Six killings by police, that’s an extraordinary number for a city of this size.”
Not according to mental health experts, city leaders and the police who say the shootings are less of a problem with officers’ actions here than it is with the city’s inability to provide treatment for individuals with mental health and drug problems.
It is not known if any of the six men killed were using drugs or alcohol at the time of their deaths. HPD has declined to provide details because the cases are still under investigation and they declined requests to be interviewed about the shootings for this story.
But at a press conference in late September following an officer-involved shooting in Kalihi, HPD Chief Susan Ballard said, “The trend is very disturbing out there. These things are happening. People are pointing weapons. Trying to use knives against the officer.”
What is known is that all six were armed with a weapon: two had guns, two had knives, one had a machete, and one had a bow and arrow. Three were in their homes when they were killed.
But at least four of the shootings involved men who exhibited either at the time of their deaths or before behavior that pointed to larger mental health problems.
Two — Gavalynn Mahuka and Renie Cablay — had, according to family members, a history of mental health issues.
When HPD officers arrived at the North Shore home of a third, Steven Hyer Jr., it was their second complaint of the day about what neighbors described as delusional, argumentative behavior. HPD officers enlisted the help of the department’s on-call psychologist. Hyer reportedly refused to cooperate and was shot after he began stabbing a police dog with an arrow.
In the case of the fourth last Sunday, Tison Dinney, 39, was first reported to police after being seen wielding a machete and hedge shears across the street from where a children’s festival was held. Police say when Dinney struck an HPD officer with a machete, two officers responded with a stun gun and a firearm.
“I think we’ve let this situation fester,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist who chairs UH’s Department of Women’s Studies. “It really points to a larger social problem in the community that isn’t being properly dealt with.”
Thanks in part to the state’s remote location, Hawaii’s violent crime rate is relatively low. “Honolulu is ranked one of the safest big cities in the country,” said Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “We still keep that ranking for violent crime and, of course, I want to retain that ranking.”
FBI crime data backs up Caldwell’s point. In 2017, there were about 394 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in the United States. Hawaii’s violent crime rate is far lower, with about 251 violent crimes committed per 100,000 residents.
Beneath those sunny crime rates, however, is a real struggle for the city to come up with consistent tactics when encountering what Caldwell calls “a hardened homeless element” who have either mental illness, a substance abuse problem or both, in the city’s urban core.
More than 60 percent of those arrested and detained in the island’s overcrowded jail, the Oahu Community Correctional Center, have one or both problems.
For years, the police department has tried to address encounters officers have had with mentally ill and drug-addicted individuals. In 2006, the HPD began consulting with three on-duty psychologists when encountering someone who appeared to be mentally ill. By 2008, HPD officers had placed about 26,000 calls to the on-duty psychologists.
This year, the department has been part of a new initiative to divert the mentally ill who have not committed a crime but appear to be in crisis. Launched in April, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program has yet to divert anyone.
The reason? The police department has been unable to agree which crimes would be eligible for diversion.
Johnson, the UH sociology professor, points to how little the public knows about each incident and what exactly officers did or did not do. Until the public knows more about their own actions, he said it’s tough to make an assessment on what needs to be improved and whether more training is needed for officers.
“It’s about transparency and accountability,” Johnson said. “For too long in Hawaii and Honolulu, in particular, police behavior has been shrouded in secrecy.”
Since 2015, The Washington Post has been collecting the number of fatal police shootings nationwide and its statistics, which are based on a combination of news reports and what police agencies report, have been more accurate than law enforcement totals. Using their database, Hawaii has had 19 fatal shootings statewide since 2015. Of those, 11 were on Oahu and all but one involved HPD officers.
What HPD officers did in each case is not known. As a policy, HPD does not release names of officers involved in shooting incidents. The new police shooting review board, the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, could decide after their review to provide those details. But it has yet to complete its first report.
But an HPD plan to accelerate training for officers in situations involving mentally ill suspects could help. In recent years, police departments nationwide have developed mental health teams after embracing a type of training that teaches officers ways to de-escalate violent encounters, especially when dealing with mentally ill individuals.
This Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training concept has worked well for police departments that had growing numbers of officer-involved shootings. In Miami, for example, fatal shootings have gone down since 2010 and the number of mental health-related calls resulted in far fewer arrests, also saving millions of dollars for taxpayers.
HPD officers were expected to receive this training next year. But HPD assistant chief Jonathon Grems told Civil Beat this week the training has been moved up. He offered no reason as to why there was a schedule change.
Caldwell welcomed that bit of news. “As mayor, I am not going to second guess an officer taking action to protect him or herself but also the public,” he said. “Can there always be more training? Absolutely.”
The six killed by HPD officers since June:
Renie Cablay, a 55-year-old Waipahu man was killed June 1 after waving a knife at police in the doorway of his home. He had been previously involved in a 2017 standoff with police.
Steven Hyer Jr., 32, was shot on June 23 at his North Shore home after he stabbed a police dog with an arrow.
Gavalynn Mahuka, 53, was shot on July 26 outside his Nanakuli home after a seven-hour standoff with police that ended when he raised a gun at police.
Freddie Joe Whitmore, 55, was shot on Sept. 20 inside an apartment in the Century Center condominium complex after he raised a loaded Glock at police. Officers had entered the apartment to execute a search warrant.
Michael Perez, 37, was shot on Sept. 27 in the Dillingham Plaza shopping center after he lunged toward police with a knife.
Tison Dinney, 39, was shot by police on Oct. 7 near the State Capitol after he struck an officer with a machete.
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