When the House Labor and Public Safety Committee held a hearing two weeks ago on a proposed police misconduct disclosure bill, Chair Aaron Ling Johanson remarked, “We’ve been talking about this for several sessions now.”
The representative was, unfortunately, correct.
It is our hope that 2019 will finally be the session when the legislation is rightly passed into law. It’s a matter not only of government transparency but also public trust, as Johanson himself noted when his committee approved the measure.
House Bill 285 now has a hearing Tuesday in Rep. Chris Lee’s House Judiciary Committee, and it needs support. Friday is the deadline for bills to advance or else be pushed to next year.
State Rep. Chris Lee, pictured in 2017, is chair of the House committee that will consider HB 285.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
HB 285 would require the police departments in all four counties to disclose to make public the names of officers when they are suspended or discharged. It’s a simple fix to the state’s open records law and eliminates an exemption for cops that does not apply to any other public employee.
The recent slate of shootings involving law enforcement — including two in one day — illustrates the dangers involved in police work but also the right of citizens to know what exactly happened and whether justice was served.
In another development just last week, a judge said that there is a “significant public interest” in how the Honolulu Police Department handles misconduct investigations of its officers. The ruling stemmed from an arbitrator’s decision that allowed a police sergeant to keep his job even after he was fired for assaulting his girlfriend in a restaurant.
Meantime, three HPD officers were recommended for discharge for driving while drunk last year and another for having sex while on duty. Cops are human just like everyone else, but they don’t deserve an exception to our open records law.
In his Feb. 12 testimony in support of HB 285, Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote, “Such disclosure will go a long way to assuring the public that the minority of bad officers will be held accountable. Its trust is important because of police responsibility due to their powers.”
Morita added that disclosure was the norm before the 1980s, when the Honolulu Police Commission routinely listed on agendas the names of officers to be disciplined under the Sunshine Law.
“We hope the committee will help end years of secrecy about disciplined officers’ identities,” Morita wrote.
Others in support of HB 285 are the local chapters of the ACLU, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. Even two groups that don’t always see eye to eye — the state Office of Information Practices and the nonprofit Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest — testified in support of the bill, which received no public opposition including from the police union which fights vigorously against any release of information including in court.
Action on the police disclosure bill should not be delayed further.
Delay, regrettably, is the case with Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang, who has been reviewing 12 police misconduct files for over two years now and has still not released them, despite a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling saying he should.
The Legislature has the chance to right this wrong now. That way we won’t have to continue to fight this out in court and wait years for records that should have been released upon request.
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