Editor’s note: One of Civil Beat’s most popular features, the database of public employee salaries, is starting to take shape for the 2020 fiscal year, which began July 1. We update the salary database when new union contracts are signed and new budgets are put in place reflecting salary increases.
The last time around, this was the one that got away.
Since 2010, Civil Beat has been publishing a database with the names, titles and salaries of tens of thousands of public employees. Salaries are a major component of state and county budgets and we think it’s important for taxpayers to know how their money is being spent.
Most of our requests for that information have been answered promptly by state and local government agencies. The biggest exception: the salaries of more than 2,000 Honolulu Police Department officers.
In 2017, the city actually tried to provide that information quickly, but was thwarted by a challenge from the state police union. We filed a public records lawsuit and a two-year legal battle ensued, ending only recently when the union exhausted its appeals of court rulings that ordered public disclosure.
So it seems appropriate to roll out this year’s edition of the database with the HPD information we’ve never published.
In the coming weeks, the database will expand greatly as we add information about other public workers — including HPD employees who are not sworn officers and therefore weren’t included in the information released as a result of court rulings. The current HPD numbers and everything to come will reflect salaries as of July 1, the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year.
New articles will alert readers each time the database is updated.
For now, we’ll start with that elusive HPD information.
Protecting Undercover Cops
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers said it wasn’t trying to prevent the public from knowing what its members are paid. Rather, it said it was trying to protect officers who work undercover.
The HPD and the city’s Corporation Counsel also wanted to protect those officers. In fact, an exemption for undercover officers is included in the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act.
But there was a big disagreement over what constituted “undercover” police work.
As far back as 2011, SHOPO contended that all officers should be covered by the undercover exemption because they almost all worked in plainclothes at least occasionally. But city officials, HPD administrators and Civil Beat argued that plainclothes isn’t the same as undercover, which would imply an assignment where the identity of the officer needed to be closely protected.
Current SHOPO president Malcom Lutu said Thursday he’d still prefer all officers’ identities be withheld to protect their safety.
Corporation Counsel attorney Duane Pang argued in court that citizens have the right to know who their police officers are, as well as what they’re paid.
“The public’s right to know what type of individual is wearing a uniform, has this awesome power, clearly outweighs the privacy interest,” Pang told then-District Court Judge Virginia Crandall.
The legal question came down to who should be considered “undercover,” but until that question was answered Crandall prohibited the city from releasing any officers names and salaries, other than that of the chief.
Crandall, who recently retired, noted in an October ruling that the HPD said it had “conducted a case-by-case assessment to assure that each police officer that is identified on the roster is performing normal or regular police duties.”
“The plaintiff did not meet its burden of proof to show irreparable harm or that the disclosure of the roster would constitute clearly unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the police officer,” Crandall said.
The judge added that SHOPO “has not made a showing that disclosure of the roster would place any officer on the roster in jeopardy,” and she rejected the idea that former undercover cops now working openly for HPD should not be identified publicly as cops.
Crandall later granted a union motion to keep the records sealed pending an appeal, but when it missed a deadline for submitting documents to the Intermediate Court of Appeals, that court dismissed the challenge in May, effectively ending the case.
A Look At The Salaries
Not surprisingly, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard is the highest paid HPD employee at $205,800 annually.
Deputy chiefs Jonathan Grems and John McCarthy are paid $196,296.
Salary ranges instead of specific figures are listed for all the other sworn officers on the 2,006-person roster. State law requires that salaries be publicly released as ranges for most employees, although specific salaries are publicly available for some higher level employees.
For six assistant police chiefs, the range is $108,708-$180,960. For 18 majors, it’s $93,948-$156,288, and for 23 captains, it’s $85,176-$141,780.
The pay range for hundreds of rank-and-file police officers is $66,900-$96,336. For police recruits, it’s $64,368-$85,044.
She ascended to the top spot after the January 2017 departure of Louis Kealoha, who was recently convicted after a federal corruption investigation. Cary Okimoto served as acting chief for several months in the interim.
The change in leadership had a lot to do with the department’s willingness to release officers’ identities and salaries, and then fend off the union’s legal challenge, said Brian Black, director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. On behalf of Civil Beat, Black joined in the court proceedings to argue for release of the information.
The end of that case doesn’t necessarily mean disputes won’t continue over the undercover officer exemption.
When the Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development responded to Civil Beat’s latest request, it withheld the names of 114 employees, including 57 investigators in the Attorney General’s office, 37 investigators in Commerce and Consumer Affairs, and 20 sheriff’s deputies and investigators in the Department of Public Safety.
State officials have not yet responded to Civil Beat’s request for an explanation of how they determined the employees qualified for the undercover officer exemption.
The resolution of the HPD case doesn’t necessarily set a precedent for future legal challenges over the undercover exemption, Black said, but he added that the way the city handled the case “is a model for other agencies to follow.”
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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