One of the most important police reform measures to pass the Hawaii Legislature is now in danger of being significantly weakened less than a year after it became law.
Senate Bill 1179 and its identical companion House Bill 952 would alter the membership, powers and duties of the newly formed Law Enforcement Standards Board, make new deadlines for completion of its responsibilities, and allocate more money to increase its staffing and operations.
While the staffing and funding make sense and should be considered by lawmakers, the bills are troubling for two major reasons: They add more cops to a board overseeing cops, and they push back key components of the finalization of the standards and certification process until 2023.
We have written many times about why Hawaii needs a Law Enforcement Standards Board.
As we have often pointed out, we are the only state that lacks such a statewide board — even though some lawmakers have been advocating for it for years.
Gov. David Ige wants to delay full implementation of the Law Enforcement Standards Board for four years. Bad idea.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
What is now called Act 220 unanimously passed the 2018 session and was on its way to becoming law when Ige said he might veto it last June. He said there was no need for the board, even though he admired the intent of the bill that would certify county and state police officers. He also raised concerns that the board was not sufficiently funded.
Ige was influenced by the chiefs of county police departments who pointed out that their agencies are already certified by the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. But that argument is hollow because many, if not most, police departments across the country are accredited by CALEA and all also have independent oversight boards.
Now, in an apparent reversal of that line of thinking, police agencies are saying they need to delay implementation of the board for many years in order to get proper standards in place.
The reason a standards board is so important to Hawaii is because it can weed out bad cops. Because we lack a board, an officer like Ethan Ferguson, discharged by the Honolulu Police Department, was then hired as a cop by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
It was in that capacity that he sexually assaulted a woman he had detained. Ferguson is now behind bars. But if a Law Enforcement Standards Board had existed when he applied for the DLNR job, he likely and rightly would have been rejected.
Ige ultimately let the standards board bill become law without his signature. Now his administration is pushing the legislation to water it down and delay its full implementation for four years.
As West Hawaii Today reported, the Law Enforcement Standards Board is asking for the additional time and money to set up the agency. Statewide standards for training and certification of cops were to be in place by July 1 of this year.
In addition to the lengthy delay, the standards board wants $275,000 over the next two years to hire two full-time employees and to help with administrative and operating costs. The current law only allocates $100,000 to support statewide training boards.
The board also wants to have five cops instead of two serve on the board — one from each county and the fifth from the state.
Mandy Fernandes, policy director for ACLU of Hawaii, called four years “a very long delay.”
“There may be compelling reasons and justifications,” said Fernandes. “We need to know those reasons. It’s not enough to say we need more time — the state needs to show why there’s a compelling reason to delay implementation of this board.”
We agree. We also share the ACLU’s view that stacking a Law Enforcement Standards Board with cops is unwise.
Only one other state has succeeded in getting its Legislature to modify a police standards board: California. CALmatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture that helps explain how California’s state Capitol works, wrote what should serve as a warning to Hawaii:
In the 2018 session, two police accountability bills ultimately collapsed under opposition from law enforcement: One would have made a tougher standard for police to use deadly force, and the other would have the attorney general investigate police shootings.
CALmatters added that California’s governor did sign into law bills creating more police transparency. But it also noted that California “does more than many states to shield police from scrutiny,” even though it is ostensibly run by progressive-minded Democrats.
Hawaii’s Law Enforcement Standards Board is about more scrutiny of cops. The Legislature should provide more money for the agency to perform this essential job. It could expedite such legislation well before the session ends in May and put it on the governor’s desk for his signature. Indeed, both bills have only one committee to clear in each chamber.
But the board’s current voting-member composition of nine ex officio individuals, two cops and four members of the public should stand.
It took years for Hawaii’s Law Enforcement Standards Board to become a reality. Let’s not go backwards.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.