WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus and U.S. Senate unveiled new legislation Monday that aims to hold local, state and federal law enforcement officials more accountable for their actions.

The legislation comes amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The 136-page bill, called the Justice in Policing Act, proposes numerous reforms, including the creation of a federal database to track officer misconduct and use of force.

Black Lives Matter marchers arrive at the Capitol.
Peaceful protesters called for police reform over the weekend in a march on the Hawaii State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Other provisions seek to eliminate racial and religious profiling by law enforcement agencies and place a ban on chokeholds and carotid neck restraints that have caused deaths across the country, including in Floyd’s case. Police use of no-knock warrants in drug cases also would be restricted under the legislation.

Breonna Taylor, a black EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, was gunned down in her home by police in March during the execution of a no-knock warrant. Taylor has since become yet another symbol in the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement that has captivated the nation and spread to other parts of the globe.

Loretta Sheehan, a former prosecutor who until recently served on the Honolulu Police Commission, said the federal legislation appears to go where local legislators would not, particularly when it comes to increasing transparency surrounding officer misconduct and the inappropriate use of force.

Too often, she said, officials have bowed to the will of the state’s police union, which has negotiated to have most officer wrongdoing shielded either by law or through collective bargaining.

“They have very successfully negotiated their union contracts to limit exposure,” Sheehan said. “You’re generally not going to find out about police officer misconduct unless it’s videotaped and put on the 6 o’clock news or unless there’s a lawsuit filed by the victim.”

If the Justice in Policing Act passes it could force state and local officials to take action or otherwise risk losing out on federal dollars. For instance, the bill provides a grant program for state attorneys general to develop independent investigative procedures to address allegations of misconduct and excessive uses of force.

Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan July 2019.
Loretta Sheehan helped reshape the Honolulu Police Department as a member of the police commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii has long struggled with holding its police officers accountable.

Much of that has been attributed to the influence of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, or SHOPO, the statewide police labor union that has often blocked attempts at reform.

Most notably, in the 1990s the union pushed for changes in the state’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, to shield the majority of officer misconduct from public view, a cause it has continued to champion in court and at the Legislature.

“You simply cannot have accountability unless you have transparency,” said Josh Wisch, who’s the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, “and right now the process of addressing police misconduct in Hawaii is opaque.”

While the ACLU generally supports the intent of the federal legislation introduced this week, the organization considers the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for law enforcement in the bill to be a “nonstarter.”

Numerous scandals, including the 2019 conviction of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha on federal corruption-related charges, have forced state lawmakers to reconsider their role in providing oversight.

For years, Hawaii was the only state without a statewide standards and training board for police officers. Lawmakers knew this, but continued to drag their feet until 2018 when they finally passed a law creating such an institution.

Still, more than two years later, the standards board has yet to get off the ground.

A bill that would make police officer misconduct a matter of public record has also repeatedly stalled out, typically behind closed doors.

Yet another example of the lack of political will, Wisch said, is the legislature’s failed attempt last year to reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws. Both chambers passed the legislation unanimously, but when Gov. David Ige vetoed the bill, lawmakers refused to override him even though they clearly had the votes to do so.

Sen Laura Thielen puts hand on microphone while Sen Josh Green speaks to her during Human Services meeting concerning care homes.
State Sen. Laura Thielen has been a long-standing critic of the lax oversight of Hawaii’s police agencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I don’t think you can pat yourself on the back for passing something like that if you can’t make sure it actually becomes law,” Wisch said. 

Hawaii Sen. Laura Thielen has been one of the few lawmakers at the forefront of the push for more police accountability for several years.

Although she said she’s been disappointed by the Legislature’s repeated failures to pass meaningful legislation, she sees hope in the bill that could reverse the decades of secrecy surrounding officer misconduct.

House Bill 285, which would make officer suspension records a matter of public record, is still technically alive after House and Senate negotiators failed to hammer out a deal during last year’s legislative session.

The question now, Thielen said, is whether her colleagues are willing to seize the moment and act decisively.

“We have a vehicle, and it is perfectly on point,” Thielen said. “We could pass that bill and get it up to the governor right away. We don’t have to wait until next year. It’s there. It’s alive.”

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