Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard says there’s not much need for police reform in Hawaii, but the data from her own department indicates otherwise.
For the past eight years, Civil Beat has documented every instance of officer misconduct — at least what’s been reported to the Legislature — that has resulted in a suspension or discharge from the Honolulu Police Department.
So far, we’ve collected 798 incidents that span 20 years and we’ve classified each one so that you can easily sort through and search for specific types of misconduct, whether it’s domestic violence, falsification of records, drunken driving or any other alleged act of criminal behavior.
We began this project in 2012 as part of an investigation into bad cops and the systems that protect them, namely the police union, the Legislature and the police commission.
We recently refreshed our database in response to the nationwide protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin, who has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, had at least 17 complaints of misconduct filed against him during the course of his career.
What you’ll find in Civil Beat’s database are, among other things, descriptions of HPD officers who cheated the department’s overtime system, set fire to their car to collect insurance money, and abused their authority when forcing a homeless man to lick a urinal inside a public bathroom.
There are cases involving officers interfering with federal investigations, lying to protect a drunken colleague who accidentally shot a bartender and fleeing the scenes of motor vehicle accidents they themselves were involved in.
Many of these officers were able to keep their jobs, in part because of strong advocacy from the statewide police union — the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
What you won’t find, however, are many names. That’s because in 1995, after University of Hawaii journalism students successfully sued to ensure police misconduct would be public, the Hawaii Legislature bowed to pressure from SHOPO to block public access to most officer misconduct records.
Lawmakers carved out a unique exemption in the state’s public records law that said county police officers’ disciplinary records — names included — could only be made public if they were fired from their jobs. Suspensions didn’t count no matter how egregious the offense or how long an officer was forced to stay home from work without pay.
The exemption was a gift afforded to no other public employee in the state. School janitors, city traffic engineers and college professors are all subject to having details about their misdeeds that result in suspensions and terminations made public under the law, should a request for those documents be made and the record exist.
In exchange for the exception, lawmakers asked county police departments to submit annual reports to the Legislature listing brief descriptions of any misconduct that resulted in the suspension or termination of an officer.
Our initial investigation and this database — both of which were first published in 2013 — were based in large part on the information gleaned from these annual reports.
What we discovered then and what remains true today is that the secrecy enabled by state legislators masked serious incidents of misconduct and outright corruption within the ranks of HPD, one of the largest municipal police departments in the country, and that there was little appetite to do anything about it.
Even now the apprehension persists despite pervasive problems tied to allowing the police to police themselves.
Malcolm Lutu, who’s the president of SHOPO, recently wrote an op-ed for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser arguing that recent discussions by lawmakers to reverse the decades of secrecy are little more than “a knee-jerk reaction from politicians who quickly forgot about the violent crimes that were occurring right before the COVID-19 shutdown, the carjackings and robberies in store parking lots, home invasions, and kupuna being robbed on sidewalks.”
The threat of an officer having their identity revealed after getting suspended for misconduct, Lutu said, would hurt recruitment and dampen morale.
“This is a time when we desperately need the Legislature’s support for public safety, rather than misguided attacks on our local officers and their families,” Lutu said. “I will stand with our SHOPO members to protect them from shame and ridicule.”
Ballard seemed to agree with at least some of the union’s concerns at a recent Honolulu Police Commission meeting in which she repeated a commonly held SHOPO sentiment that making certain misconduct a matter of public record might lead to officers pausing in the field for fear of being outed in public if they make a mistake.
“They may have some hesitation in reacting to situations out there or not reacting to something because it’s not worth getting in trouble over,” she said.
The evidence, however, shows something different. As you’ll see in the database, more than one in four cases of misconduct involves criminal activity rather than a situation in which an officer needs to make a split-second law enforcement decision to pull out their gun, for instance, or discharge their Taser.
More than 80 cases, about 10%, involved some form of assault, whether it involved an officer punching a spouse, beating someone while they were detained in the backseat of a patrol car or pinning their significant other against a wall with their vehicle.
There are more than 100 cases of officers lying or falsifying records. On occasion officers would cover for each other’s misdeeds by fudging reports or conducting half-hearted investigations into their alleged criminal misconduct.
While there are plenty of cases involving violations of various administrative procedures — such as abusing the sick leave policy, failing to show up for court after receiving a subpoena or surfing while on duty — the data shows these are far fewer in number than the incidents involving alleged criminal conduct.
In the eight years since we first launched this project, we’ve reported numerous stories of officers behaving badly.
This hasn’t always been easy, mostly due to problems with Hawaii’s public records law — the Uniform Information Practices Act — and a general culture in state and local government that prefers darkness to sunlight.
Seemingly simple stories about egregious officer misconduct can take months and even years to tell.
We’ve spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on public records that often still leave you guessing about what actually happened due to heavy-handed redactions.
Over the years we’ve filed numerous requests for public records, paid thousands of dollars for copies of those documents and launched a number of lawsuits and legal challenges through the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, all to provide you with a glimpse of the type of misconduct that occurs here.
There was James Easely. HPD’s annual report to the Legislature said simply that he was discharged after he stopped responding to dispatchers and “conducted personal business while on duty.” Police reports later obtained by Civil Beat revealed that Easely’s “personal business” included allegations he sexually assaulted a woman on the hood of his patrol car.
Another officer, Ethan Ferguson, was fired in 2012 after he falsified records and lied to investigators about transporting a runaway girl, who was underage. The department destroyed his file before we could review it, and Ferguson was later hired by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to once again work in law enforcement.
In 2017, he was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl on the Big Island. According to court records, he was wearing his conservation officer uniform at the time of the assault.
Darren Cachola became the face of HPD’s failures to address domestic violence within the ranks after a surveillance video surfaced showing him attacking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.
Despite that widely publicized incident and other run-ins with the law, Cachola was reinstated as a police officer after SHOPO advocated on his behalf. The union has since gone to court to prevent the public release of the arbitrator’s decision that overturned his termination.
Then there’s Louis Kealoha — Ballard’s immediate predecessor — who was found guilty of federal crimes stemming from his attempt to frame a family member for the theft of a mailbox by enlisting the help of an elite unit of police officers that reported directly to him.
The case is part of an ongoing federal investigation that has expanded beyond HPD to include the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and at least one key member of Mayor Kirk Caldwell‘s administration.
While you’ll find references to several of these cases in our database there are hundreds more that will only leave you guessing as to who’s involved and whether they’re still patrolling the streets.
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