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The Civil Beat Editorial Board has argued for years now that there is tremendous public interest in knowing the details of disciplinary actions against county police officers, including how the police department handled the case.
There are many reasons that the public should have the right to know the names and other information about bad cops, and by “bad cops” we’re talking about those who are found to have committed serious misconduct by their superiors or been convicted of a crime.
No one said it more eloquently than the late Circuit Judge John Lim, who in 1994 — more than 25 years ago — found that the public’s right to know the details of police misconduct was “paramount.”
You can read his full opinion here — which by the way he delivered to a standing-room-only courtroom filled with dozens of Honolulu police officers, many of whom had earlier that day circled the courthouse in police cars, lights flashing and sirens blaring, in what was reported to be a show of union strength. Some better described it as intimidation.
Both the U.S. and state constitutions protect people against abuse of power, Lim wrote, especially the abuse of power by police who hold extraordinary power over ordinary citizens. The primary check on that power is the public’s right to know, he said.
The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers be professional. The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers be educated. The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers observe individual rights and protections, at the same time it serves the public and protects the public.
The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers be professional.
The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers be educated.
The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers observe individual rights and protections, at the same time it serves the public and protects the public.
The Hawaii Supreme Court upheld Lim’s ruling that police misconduct files be made public. And then, as we’ve reported many times, the police union convinced the Legislature to require only that brief and vague summaries of police misconduct be reported to lawmakers every year.
Unfortunately, for almost a quarter century this exemption to Hawaii’s public records law has allowed officers’ records to be kept secret unless they get fired. It is an unwarranted privilege afforded no other public employees. Every other public agency is required by law to release detailed findings and even investigative reports of their employees who have been suspended or discharged.
As it did in 1994, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers says the public doesn’t need to know the names of bad cops, and the Hawaii Legislature has thus far sided with the union rather than the people they serve. The purported concern is that disclosure could damage morale, embarrass the police and lead to recruitment challenges.
As Civil Beat reported in its 2013 investigative series, “In The Name Of The Law,” and in articles every year when the summaries come in to the Legislature including the latest one earlier this month, the types of bad behavior that have led to disciplinary action include driving while drunk, failure to report other cops driving while drunk, testing positive during drug tests, having sex while on duty, intentionally damaging property, staging the burglary of their own residence and burning their vehicle in an attempt to collect insurance money, and failing to report forcing someone to lick a urinal.
And this was just what was reported in the latest report to the Legislature from the Honolulu Police Department. In other reports, the Hawaii Police Department reported that “three officers assaulted their respective spouses, one had assaulted a member of the public” and another had made unwanted physical contact with an underage girl, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Wouldn’t you like to know if these police officers are still patrolling your neighborhood or responding to your emergency call, or are applying for new employment that could again bring them into contact with the public? Isn’t this a matter of public safety?
Fortunately, more and more legislators are agreeing that police agencies should be required to perform just like all other public agencies that disclose information about employees who have been suspended or discharged. It just makes sense.
Near the end of the 2019 session there finally appeared to be broad agreement on amending state law to require the disclosure of names.
House Bill 285 was supported by the state Office of Information Practices, Common Cause Hawaii, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, the Oahu County Democrats Legislative Priorities Committee, the Hawaii Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.
All testified in support of HB 285, which was virtually opposed by no one except SHOPO. Only one senator and a handful of representatives objected to the measure as it moved through the Legislature.
But, as too often happens, HB 285 hit a mysterious snag when it moved to conference committee to work out differences between the chambers. This, even though the latest Senate amendments to the bill offered a compromise that would have allowed misconduct disclosure beginning in March 2020 but prior bad acts by police would still be subject to review.
Ultimately, legislative leaders elected to take the bill up the following year — which is now. But as of Tuesday, one-third of the way through the 2020 session, no action has been taken on HB 285 nor new legislation proposed.
The lack of legislative responsibility comes as Gov. David Ige is requesting that the state’s nascent Law Enforcement Standards Board get more money from the Legislature and to delay until 2023 the establishment of uniform standards for law enforcement departments statewide. The law would also require police officers be certified by the standards board in order to work in Hawaii, and the board could revoke an officer’s certification separate from a police department’s action.
Until the Legislature finally put the board in place in 2018 — after years of debate — Hawaii was the only state that did not have a police standards board.
But it’s been two years and the effective implementation of the board keeps getting pushed back. What could possibly justify the delay? The Legislature needs to provide the funding required for this important board.
In a related police reform effort, several years ago lawmakers created an independent board to review cases in which a citizen is hurt or killed in a police shooting or other use of force. Late last week the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board released the findings in its first case to the public.
The board, after months of debate about whether it should make its work public including opposition by SHOPO, much to its credit decided to release its summary report publicly. The report was dated nearly a year earlier — in March 2019 — but it revealed to the public its finding on the actions of Hawaii County police officers that led to the fatal shooting of a man suspected of murdering a police officer on the Big Island.
The report, which named all of the officers who fired their weapons that day, left little doubt that the officers had acted responsibly and shot the man only after he had ambushed them from under a blanket in the bed of a pickup truck. It’s reports like this that go far to convince the public that its police officers are protecting and serving the public in the highest way possible.
Now House and Senate leaders need to recognize that public scrutiny of our police is a positive and healthy thing. They need to reopen the conference committee proceedings on HB 285 in order to pass the police misconduct bill.
While we would prefer that the circumstances of all misconduct cases since 1996 be made public, an amended bill would correct this serious flaw in state law.
Contact the House speaker and Senate president and let them know that further delay is simply not acceptable.
Judge Lim stood up to SHOPO. Now legislative leaders need to do the same.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, John Hill 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.