Amidst calls for greater transparency in police departments, the Legislature could revive a bill that would require police departments to release details of misconduct for suspended or fired officers. 

Unlike other public employees, discipline records of police officers are exempt from Hawaii’s public records law unless that officer is fired. The measure to disclose officer names and allow the release of misconduct records for suspended officers, House Bill 285, has been stuck in a conference committee between the House and Senate for over a year. 

Now, House Speaker Scott Saiki wants his lead negotiator on HB 285 to start working on it again.

“The bill is definitely on our radar,” Saiki told Civil Beat.

Speaker of the House Scott Saiki speaks about preparations in the budget for Coronavirus.

House Speaker Scott Saiki wants a committee to start work again on a bill to disclose misconduct records of suspended officers.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He’s asked Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, to take another look at HB 285 and determine why it stalled last year and what amendments, if any, should be made to it.

Lee said the bill is among a number of issues the Legislature could take up in the coming weeks.

Senate President Ron Kouchi referred an interview request to Sen. Karl Rhoads, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who is also a negotiator on HB 285 for the Senate. A Senate spokesman said Rhoads was unavailable Monday afternoon.

HB 285 would require that departments list the names of officers who are suspended or fired in annual misconduct reports to the Legislature. It would also allow public access to misconduct records for officers who have been suspended.

“That would be a big step toward improving transparency in the system,” Saiki said.

Currently, Hawaii’s public records law only allows access to misconduct records for officers who are fired, and obtaining even those records has proven difficult

Sometimes, it’s also difficult for police departments to fire officers, who are afforded a secretive arbitration process through the police union that often results in reduced punishment.

Saiki said he spoke to Lee about HB 285 last week and again Monday, and won’t make a decision on what to do with the bill until Lee reports back.

“I know Chris is really supportive of this bill,” Saiki said. “I know he’ll work hard on it.”

It still needs to clear other procedural hurdles, however. Senate President Ron Kouchi and Saiki need to agree to rules governing conference committees. That typically happens every year just before the last two weeks of the session, when conference committees start meeting.

But because the Legislature suspended its session due to COVID-19, those rules haven’t been agreed upon yet. Saiki also noted that the Legislature doesn’t usually bring back bills from a previous year’s conference committee, and that Senate leaders would need to agree to do that with HB 285.

Chair Karl Rhoads and Chair Chris Lee talk before the HB1383 Decriminilization conference committee today.

House Judiciary chair Chris Lee, right, and Senate Judiciary chair Karl Rhoads would be among the lawmakers tasked with taking another look at HB 285.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2019, the bill had broad support in both chambers. It passed the House by a vote of 45-6, and cleared the Senate 24-1. 

The key difference between the two chambers is that a Senate draft of the bill specified that the disclosure provisions would only apply to cases after March 1, 2020. The House had argued for a version that removes that requirement.

The bill had the support of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, Young Progressives Demanding Action, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, the state Office of Information Practices, the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Hawaii, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Domestic Violence Action Center.

It was opposed by several individuals and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the police union.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said at a news conference that, if disclosure requirements were to change, HPD would comply.

Recently, there’s been much discussion among legislators on how to address issues with the criminal justice system, Lee said Monday.

“How do you ensure public trust in law enforcement? How do we ensure accountability for those who violate that trust? How do we give everyone a voice?” Lee said. “And ultimately, how do we ensure justice for all.”

He said the lawmakers are also looking to other state laws for ideas, such as one that could require police to intervene in potentially unlawful situations involving other officers. Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by police, has a similar requirement, but officers involved in Floyd’s death did not intervene, the Associated Press reported.

Lee said the lawmakers have been in talks with police and other law enforcement agencies regarding changes to policies and the law.

“We know they’re taking proactive steps to address some of these things, but we also want to make sure that, as well intentioned as they are today, you don’t get another police chief in the future that tries to change gears and back pedal,” Lee said.

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