Hawaii’s police officers may soon lose an exemption that since the 1990s has shielded disciplinary records from public scrutiny.

A panel of legislators agreed to advance House Bill 285 Wednesday. The bill would hold police to the same standards as other public employees in Hawaii by requiring disclosure of disciplinary records that aren’t currently public.

Similar bills have failed in prior sessions of the Legislature, which gave county police officers the unique exemption in 1995. Lawmakers have been under public pressure to pass HB 285, which had been stuck in a conference committee since last year.

“This is to show, that when someone does something wrong, we won’t protect them,” Sen. Karl Rhoads, the Senate’s lead negotiator on the bill, said shortly before the vote.

Supporters of George Floyd rally fronting the Capitol with a sign that reads, ‘Stop Police Brutality’.
Legislators advanced a bill Wednesday that would remove an exemption that has shielded the disciplinary records of officers from public view for 25 years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The bill easily cleared the conference committee of House and Senate negotiators. Open government advocates have long called for the bill to pass. It was opposed by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu wasn’t immediately available Wednesday afternoon.

Sen. Kurt Fevella, the Senate’s lone Republican, was also the lone no vote.

Echoing SHOPO’s testimony on the measure, he worried that revealing officer names in annual legislative reports on police misconduct, another provision of the bill, would discourage potential applicants at a time police departments are short staffed.

Fevella also suggested that the Legislature should require annual misconduct reports on all public employees.

“I just want to know how will this keep us safer,” Fevella said.

After an exchange between Rhoads and Fevella, Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, the House’s lead negotiator, responded.

“Transparency, when it comes to the public trust, makes everyone safer,” he said.

Rhoads along with Sens. Roz Baker and Clarence Nishihara voted in favor of the measure, as did Reps. Johanson, Chris Lee and Cynthia Thielen.

The bill is now teed up for a final vote by both legislative chambers before going to the governor’s desk.

The new draft of HB 285 would also allow the public to access disciplinary records of officers. That also means the public could access records even for old cases, according to Rhoads.

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Those records would likely only be made available after a disciplinary case has gone through both the department’s internal review as well as a union arbitration process, Rhoads said.

The measure would also make some changes to the Law Enforcement Standards Board, which was created by the Legislature in 2018. It gives the board a new deadline of Dec. 21, 2021 to come up with training and certification standards for all law enforcement officers in the state after the board failed to do that last year.

The bill would also put into law a provision that allows the board to decertify officers who fail to meet standards set by the board.

The House and Senate will likely take up HB 285 next week, according to a House press release.

“The conference committee did the right thing, they’re moving this in the right direction,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which has pushed for passing the measure.

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