In the week since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, news reporters and the public have uncovered that Chauvin had a long record of problematic policing.
“In nearly two decades with the Minneapolis Police Department, Derek Chauvin faced at least 17 misconduct complaints, none of which derailed his career,” the New York Times reported.
But if the killing had happened in Honolulu — or any other part of Hawaii — that information might have been impossible to find out. Unlike Minneapolis, Hawaii police departments don’t maintain publicly available online databases of complaints against police officers.
And even if an officer is suspended for misconduct, his name is kept secret by the department. That’s because Hawaii police officers are protected by a decades-old law that keeps their misconduct hidden, as long as they aren’t fired.
Instead, local police departments submit annual summaries of misconduct to the Legislature with no names and few details. That’s in stark contrast to other Hawaii public workers, such as school bus drivers and janitors, whose suspensions and terminations are public record.
A 2013 Civil Beat investigation found that once a week on average a Honolulu police officer is suspended or fired for misconduct. But the Hawaii police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, has effectively persuaded the Legislature to hide police misconduct from public view.
The police union didn’t respond to a message seeking comment Thursday.
Officers’ names only have to be revealed if they are fired.
But that might not happen if they resign in lieu of termination, or if the police union files a grievance on their behalf to reverse their termination. If officers themselves are arrested, charged or sued, then their names and misdeeds could become available in police and court records but that’s not typical.
“We release the officers’ years of service and their assigned unit, but it is HPD’s practice not to release the names of the officers unless they are arrested,” Michelle Yu, spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department, said Thursday in an email.
Yu said she couldn’t recall a Honolulu police officer ever getting arrested for their involvement in a death. There has been one death so far this year and six last year.
Since 2013, Hawaii lawmakers have considered bills to improve transparency but little has happened.
Last year, lawmakers debated a bill to make public the identities of suspended officers but failed to agree on which version to pass. They planned to revisit it this year until coronavirus derailed the session.
The measure, House Bill 285, could still clear both chambers fairly quickly if the conference committee it’s been trapped in since April 2019 would reconvene.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara, one of the Senate’s negotiators, said there hasn’t been discussion on HB 285 all year. He says without support from leadership, meaning House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi, the bill is unlikely to gain any traction again.
Last year, the Senate was fine with HB 285, but House representatives wanted to work out some issues they had with the bill.
But Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and was also picked to lead negotiations on the bill, said he couldn’t recall what those issues were. He’s also not sure when the bill will be considered again.
“Everything has just been COVID, COVID, COVID,” he said, adding that his colleagues have been discussing what the police killing of George Floyd and ongoing protests mean for people in Hawaii.
The Legislature hasn’t yet resumed session given concerns about how to manage both social distancing and public participation.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what sort of timeline and what sort of capacity there is for the state to take these things up in the weeks and months to come,” Lee said.
Nishihara thinks the issue should at least be discussed.
“I think in light of what happened, the actions of police on the mainland, I think it is something, nationwide we should look at,” he said. “In Hawaii, we are not immune from that.”
The annual summaries that the Legislature receives about police misconduct don’t have many details.
One report for incidents in 2011 said that a police officer had been fired because he didn’t answer his radio and for conducting “personal business while on duty.”
More than two years later, HPD revealed that the officer, James Easley, had been fired after a domestic violence victim alleged he had raped her on the hood of his patrol car.
But the fact that Easley’s name and file became public is the exception, not the rule. Civil Beat sued the city in 2013 in an effort to obtain the files of a dozen officers suspended for assaults, falsifying records and other criminal conduct.
The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the records should be made public, but sent it back to Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang to look at each individual case and determine whether the public interest in releasing them outweighs officers’ privacy concerns. Four years later, Chang has yet to release the files.
After HPD reinstated Darren Cachola, an HPD officer who was caught on film beating his girlfriend, the agency planned to release the arbitrator’s report that recommended his reinstatement.
The police union blocked the disclosure and the case is pending at the Hawaii Supreme Court. Civil Beat is an intervenor in the case advocating for the document’s release.
When HPD officer Ethan Ferguson was fired, the 2013 legislative summary about his misconduct read, “The officer transported a juvenile female runaway without a supervisor’s authorization and was untruthful during the investigation.” The summary added Ferguson falsified information. Ferguson wasn’t named.
Ferguson was then hired as a state law enforcement official on Hawaii Island and in 2016, charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl on the job. The state said they knew Ferguson was fired but hadn’t known the details.
The public doesn’t know the details either about his firing because HPD destroyed Ferguson’s file pursuant to its records retention policy at the time.
Hawaii has since created a statewide police standards board, though without the support of Democratic Gov. David Ige.
Click here to read some of Civil Beat’s previous reporting on Honolulu police misconduct.
Civil Beat reporters Nick Grube and Blaze Lovell contributed reporting to this story.
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