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Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told the Honolulu Police Commission this week that she hopes the police reform that’s sweeping the nation skips Hawaii.
“We are different,” she told the commission during their Wednesday meeting. “They’re talking about, ‘you had a spike in officer-involved shootings.’ We had eight in a year!”
“OK, it’s high for Honolulu but in general for any other large major police department, that’s nothing.”
Police killings have multiplied since Ballard took office in 2017 after her predecessor was indicted for federal corruption. Thirty people died at the hands of Honolulu police since 2010, with half of those deaths since 2018.
That total doesn’t include a 28-year-old man in Kaneohe who died in police custody Wednesday morning, just hours before Ballard appeared before the commission. His cause of death is still unknown.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests, Ballard announced HPD would review its use of force policy and temporarily suspend the use of vascular neck restraints.
But on Wednesday, she described the calls for reform as a “knee jerk reaction” to what’s happening on the mainland. Honolulu isn’t perfect, she says, but when the department sees something wrong, it takes action.
“The nation is behind. There does need to be police reform, but can you leave number 50 state alone? We’re kind of doing OK over here,” she said, adding, “but I don’t know how to get that information out. I mean it’s difficult, very difficult to get that out.”
Ballard didn’t mention the death of the Kaneohe man during the public meeting. HPD said in a statement Thursday that he was “combative,” and died while wearing handcuffs and leg shackles.
The entire police commission meeting is embedded below or you can watch it by clicking here. Here are some of the highlights:
Ballard discussed plans to hold implicit bias training for police officers but says that can’t happen yet during the pandemic.
“There’s different articles and research regarding, does implicit bias even exist?” she said, explaining the definition of implicit bias to commissioners in response to a question. “And so, they say that when you have these implicit biases that your reaction towards a group of people could be affected because of your implicit bias. And then there’s other research that says, no, everyone knows who you don’t like and who you do like.”
“Regardless of which side you’re looking at, we already have bias-based training,” she said. “If it’s something that will help the officer or if it’s something that will expand on our bias-based training … I mean, it can only help right?”
She added that Hawaii is different from the mainland when it comes to implicit bias.
“Here in Hawaii, one thing is, we’ve got no shame about talking about race. We talk about race all the time and when you meet people, it’s like, ‘oh, so what is your background, what is your nationality?’” she said.
In terms of implicit bias, “Does it affect us here in Hawaii? I mean it does but I think a lot less so than on the mainland,” she said.
A Civil Beat article on Wednesday revealed Honolulu’s annual use of force reports have been undercounting police killings in its use of force reports for years. Ballard blamed bad technology and told the commission that the department’s program is “homemade.”
“We’ve never been able to get the same statistics every time we run it in this program,” she said. “We get different statistics and I don’t know if it’s the way we run it, who runs it … but it’s unacceptable.
“Unfortunately we’re stuck with this homemade system until we get this new system in place.”
She said one of the first things she did when she became chief was use civil asset forfeiture money to buy a new records management system and a computer-aided dispatch system. But she says it will take up to two years for the records management system to be in place.
Until then, the department won’t be able to release very much information, she said, noting that its annual reports on use of force might shrink to just one page.
“We’re a major police department, we should have something that is reliable. And not saying the current one isn’t reliable, but it’s just not working the way it should be working,” she said.
The Civil Beat article came up again in the police commission meeting when commissioner Carrie Okinaga said there are relatively few police killings in Honolulu.
“I understand the point of the article which is that there’s discrepancies and it throws everything into question. But I just want to point out the context of what you’re talking about is a very, very few number relative to (the) experience of other police departments,” she said.
Ballard replied that what Civil Beat doesn’t understand is that the discrepancy has to do with reporting requirements and that justifiable homicides aren’t included in some federal reporting standards.
“We tried to explain that to them but … it didn’t fit what they were trying to do with the article,” she said.
Ballard didn’t say anything about reporting requirements or justifiable homicides during Civil Beat’s interview with her last week.
Civil Beat requested an additional interview with her for clarification and is still waiting to hear back.
Ballard also spoke about House Bill 285, a bill in the Legislature that would remove an exemption that keeps secret the names of officers that have been suspended for misconduct.
In Hawaii, this lack of transparency is unique to law enforcement officials. It’s possible, for example, to see the name of a city janitor who has been suspended for drug use, or the name of a city bus driver who has been suspended for chronic absenteeism. But the names of suspended police officers are kept secret, even if they commit crimes like domestic violence or impeding investigations.
New York legislators just rescinded a similar law that kept police disciplinary records secret.
If Hawaii lawmakers revisit the bill, Ballard hopes that the secrecy remains intact for less serious police misconduct, like suspensions for repeated tardiness.
She believes revealing the names could affect how officers do their jobs.
“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.
Shannon Alivado, the police commission’s chair, dedicated an entire agenda item to pushing back on a Honolulu Star-Advertiser column by David Shapiro that said the police commission must be “watchdogs, not lapdogs.”
The column focused on the departure of two police commissioners who left because they felt they couldn’t effectuate reform.
Alivado started off by saying that she and others on the commission take their jobs very seriously. She took issue with how Shapiro said the commission gave former police chief glowing reviews without noting that its membership has since changed.
“The media’s inaccuracy is causing unnecessary angst within the community that is inaccurate, false and unnecessary,” she said.
“We as a collective body work together, not as single watchdogs, but as a collective body, and the focus of this commission is to continue doing its job by asking tough questions, engaging with the communities, listening to their concerns, and working with the chief to improve the department,” she said. “A lot of frustration has been felt by myself and others about (a) perception being provided in the media.”
Two other commissioners said they agree with her and they take their jobs very seriously.
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