Two years after its creation, Hawaii’s police fatalities review board is still struggling to figure out whether it should release its investigative findings and materials to the public.

The oversight body was established by the Legislature in 2017 to independently review officer-involved deaths to increase transparency, and also to make recommendations to prosecutor’s offices on whether to press charges.

However, the board has been hung up over what it’s legally allowed and required to do as far as releasing its findings and the material it used to come to its conclusions.

The nine-member board held a public meeting Thursday morning, but almost immediately went into closed session to seek legal advice and did not reconvene a public session afterward.

police shooting Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board meeting.
Members of the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board are still unsure whether their work should be public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

It finished reviewing its first case in June, but the findings of that investigation still have not been released because no decision has been made in public session on what — if anything — can be released.

The first case involved a former Hawaii Department of Public Safety officer who was fatally shot by Honolulu police after he reportedly waved a small knife at officers and lunged at them during a six-hour standoff. That incident happened in October 2017 in the courtyard of his Waipahu condo complex.

At its last public meeting on June 20, the review board voted to seek counsel from the state Attorney General’s office. The attorney met with them in executive session Thursday.

Although there was no public discussion among board members, they heard from two attorneys from organizations who have an interest in the release of police records — the Civil Beat Law Center for Public Interest and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

The law center represents Civil Beat in several open records lawsuits.

Brian Black, executive director of the law center, told the board that once the board receives the benefit of an attorney’s advice, it should make further discussions on the board’s course of action public.

SHOPO, the law enforcement officers union, has continuously opposed the release of police personnel records, citing privacy interest of officers.

Its attorney, Keani Alapa, told the board  that the members must consider the officers’ collective bargaining agreement and the privacy exceptions under the state’s open records law.

Anything short of termination carries a significant privacy interest, Alapa said, in which case there must be a balancing test.

“SHOPO doesn’t believe in absolute transparency,” he said. “It’s never been our position. We need to take a good look at what we’re disclosing.”

The Civil Beat Law Center 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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