A 143-page disciplinary report that summarizes the Honolulu Police Department’s investigation of an officer who was caught on video repeatedly punching his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant must be released under Hawaii’s public records law, a Circuit Court judge ruled Friday.
The city and HPD had been prepared to release the decision so the public could see why an arbitrator gave Cachola his job back along with several years of back pay. But the police union — the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers — sued to keep it secret.
Civil Beat filed a public records request for the decision and investigative records and was allowed to intervene in the case.
In his Friday ruling, the judge declined to release most of the 767-page investigative report compiled by HPD. He said city officials had not finished redacting names and other information that raised privacy concerns as they had done in the arbitrator’s decision and the other report, called a closing report.
Crabtree noted the full file didn’t shed much more light on the public’s knowledge of what had transpired at the restaurant than is in the arbitrator’s decision and the closing report.
He did, however, order the city to release about 78 pages of the investigative report that show HPD’s policies and procedures that are applicable to the Cachola case. “The court sees no privacy interest in these documents, and disclosure is in the public interest because they will help the public evaluate HPD’s standards and investigative process for the incident in question,” according to the order.
Earlier, Crabtree had come down strongly in favor of the public’s right to know what had happened in this case, why Cachola was fired and why the arbitrator had disagreed with his termination. Crabtree said there is a “significant public interest” in police misconduct that outweighs any privacy interest the officer may have, something that SHOPO has been arguing.
SHOPO attorneys have said they will appeal Crabtree’s rulings in the case to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
That means the public may not see any of the records any time soon, says Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which represented Civil Beat in the lawsuit.
He said it will be up to the court to decide if it will keep the records under wraps during the appeal process.
Earlier, when SHOPO first filed the lawsuit and Civil Beat intervened, Crabtree acknowledged that the release of the information in a timely fashion was important.
Black noted that waiting years for the appeals process to play out undermines the public’s interest. “Cases such as this — where the public interest is so clear and undisputed — must have timely disclosure,” he said. “The process for public access to police disciplinary suspension records is broken.”
Crabtree’s ruling is based in part on a 2016 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling ordering disclosure of misconduct files for 12 HPD officers. The high court also found that the public interest in police misconduct and how police departments handle it outweighed individual officer privacy interests.
The court sent that case back to Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang to review each file in essentially the same way HPD did in the Cachola case. Chang still hasn’t released any of the 12 files and has asked for patience.
Meanwhile, the Senate public safety committee on Tuesday is hearing House Bill 285 which would make police disciplinary files subject to disclosure once the discipline has become final. That’s the same standard that applies to all public employees except county police officers.
Now, the public can only see records on officers who have been terminated and not until arbitration is final. HB 285 would eliminate that exemption for police and records of suspension or other disciplinary action, including arbitration reports, would be publicly available in a much more timely fashion, Black says.
The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.