WASHINGTON — The killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and discrimination that are taking place across the country have been top of mind for Hawaii Congressman Ed Case.
During a Zoom call with Civil Beat’s editorial board last week, Case said he supports efforts to reform policing in America, and backs legislation proposed by his fellow Democrats to do so, although he still has a few apprehensions about certain provisions related to banning no-knock warrants and ending a federal program that arms local law enforcement with surplus military gear.
Case described Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer as “an incredible tragedy” that warrants national action. He just wants to make sure that whatever changes come are thoroughly vetted.
“How do we actually advance the cause of justice and the cause of ending racial discrimination after so many decades and centuries?” Case said. “How do we address the incredible behavior of the police in these situations without fundamentally crippling public safety capabilities across our country and without fundamentally crippling our police forces? What are the right remedies?”
Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee and U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, introduced the Justice in Policing Act last week in response to Floyd’s death.
The sweeping legislation includes numerous provisions to address racial disparities, use of force and officer misconduct in law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S.
Since then Republicans have tasked U.S. Sen. Tim Scott — the GOP’s only Black senator — to develop their own proposal while President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order this week that includes use of force guidelines, a nationwide certification program for law enforcement agencies and a federal database to track officer misconduct.
Case was not an original co-sponsor of the Justice in Policing Act, but he signed on shortly after it was introduced. Part of the delay, he said, was that he hadn’t seen the full text of the bill before the deadline to sign on. He also wanted to hear what some of his colleagues had to say about the legislation before backing it himself.
Another complication, of course, was the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that many members of Congress, Case included, have been working remotely.
Hawaii Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono have both publicly backed the legislation.
As of Monday, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard had not yet co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act. Gabbard did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment Monday. Instead, her office issued a press release 12 hours later saying that she had decided to sign on to the legislation.
Case said that whatever legislation is put forward it’s important to balance the outrage, tragedy and frustration with a measured approach to reform.
“I don’t want to overreact so that we end up with a national standard on how police departments should operate or not operate and that does not allow them to do their job legitimately and with legitimate oversight,” Case said.
Still, he said he thinks it was important for him to support the Justice in Policing Act as a show of solidarity.
“This is our first step towards justice and real policy breakthroughs that will affect structural change,” Case said. “I felt that it was important for me to make that statement with my colleagues, and I think that statement would be supported by the vast majority of my constituents.”
One provision in the Justice in Policing Act that sticks out, he said, would curb the transfer of military-grade equipment, such as mine-resistant combat vehicles and other weapons, to local police departments.
Much of this excess equipment was purchased and used during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, according to the legislation, over the years departments have received billions of dollars worth of gear, including $504 million in 2017 alone.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the militarization of the nation’s police force for years, saying it emboldens an aggressive “warrior” mentality that can make officers “think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”
Schatz has pushed to limit the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement in the past and has renewed his efforts to do so in light of Floyd’s killing and the nationwide protests that were sparked as a result.
“It is clear that many police departments are being outfitted as if they are going to war, and it is not working in terms of maintaining the peace,” Schatz said in an interview with The New York Times. “This is not the only thing we need to do, but as our country sees these images on television that remind us of some countries far, far away, it’s time to recalibrate this program. Just because the Department of Defense has excess weaponry doesn’t mean it will be put to good use.”
Case says he’s not yet sure that banning the transfer of excess military equipment is the right call.
“The real question is what equipment do police departments need to do their job legitimately, and if the military is the best place to get that equipment from on a surplus basis why shouldn’t they get it from the military,” Case said. “If you’re in a situation with an active shooter on the second floor overlooking a plaza you darn well do want a pretty protective piece of equipment so that you can handle that situation.”
The congressman is also skeptical about banning no-knock warrants during drug raids, which basically allow police officers to barge into someone’s home without warning and without announcing that they’re law enforcement. The practice has been widely criticized, especially in light of the killing of Breonna Taylor, a black emergency room technician who was gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers.
Training, oversight and transparency are three areas that need to be addressed, Case said, and Hawaii is no exception, especially when it comes to independent oversight and state laws that shield bad cops from public scrutiny.
Case was a state representative in the mid-1990s when the Hawaii police union pushed lawmakers to pass a law exempting most police officers from having their names and misdeeds made public through the state’s open records law.
He was one of only a handful of legislators to oppose the bill, which eventually became law, and for more than two decades has allowed hundreds of county police officers to have much of their misconduct kept secret. He supports ongoing efforts to lift the veil of confidentiality as well as the provisions in the federal Justice in Policing Act that would create a nationwide registry of officer misconduct that would be subject to public inspection.
History has shown that the state’s county police commissions aren’t enough to hold officers accountable, Case said, which is why new mechanisms are needed. While the commissions are supposed to provide citizen oversight of the departments, he said, the bodies are only as good as the people who are appointed and whether they take the job seriously.
The Honolulu Police Commission, for instance, for years gave former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha high marks despite the fact that dozens of his officers were getting into serious trouble and he himself was under federal criminal investigation. Kealoha has since been found guilty of a series of crimes stemming from attempts to frame a family member for the theft of his mailbox.
The commission allowed him to retire in good standing before his conviction as part of a severance deal that gave him his full pension benefits — worth an estimated $150,000 a year — and an additional $250,000 payout.
“At the end of the day it has to be the culture of the commission that counts and the culture of independence and accountability that matters,” Case said. “I think we’ve had a mixed record on that.”
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