Law enforcement officers in Hawaii may soon lose an exemption that helps shield misconduct records from public scrutiny.

But before the measure has a chance of making it to Gov. David Ige’s desk, the Legislature’s negotiators on the bill must work out issues they still have with it.

State legislators are scheduled on Tuesday to discuss House Bill 285, which would require more detailed information on police misconduct including names of officers who are suspended as well as fired. The bill would also require the disclosure of disciplinary records that are not currently public under state law.

The bill — which has been long called for by open government advocates — stalled last year after negotiators from the House and Senate couldn’t come to an agreement on it.

Chair Karl Rhoads and Chair Chris Lee talk before the HB1383 Decriminilization conference committee today.
Lawmakers, pictured in 2019, are back at work on a measure that would remove from state law an exemption that shields officers’ disciplinary records from the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s been revived this year amid growing calls from the public for greater accountability of police officers following the alleged police killing of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died after an officer pressed his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck.

If the same case happened in Hawaii, almost no information on that officer’s disciplinary history would be publicly accessible.

On Monday afternoon, House negotiators proposed a new draft of HB 285.

While that new draft of HB 285 would open misconduct records of officers who are suspended or fired, it would only apply to cases of misconduct that occurred after the bill becomes law, not retroactively.

Simply put: the public wouldn’t be able to get the disciplinary records for someone like Darren Cachola, who the police department tried to fire after video of a 2014 incident surfaced of him punching his girlfriend.

The bill would also require that county police chiefs publish the names of officers who have been suspended or fired in annual reports to the Legislature.

Lawmakers still have issues they’re working out in HB 285, according to Sen. Karl Rhoads, the Senate’s lead negotiator on the bill.

Rhoads, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Civil Beat the House and Senate negotiators had a call to discuss the bill Monday afternoon. During that call, the lawmakers talked about what putting the disclosure of police disciplinary records on par with other employees would look like. Disciplinary records for all other public employees who have been suspended or fired are open for public scrutiny.

 “Because they’ve never been treated in the same way, what would that result in?” Rhoads said.

When the bill stalled last year, the legislators were still hung up on how HB 285 could affect misconduct cases under investigation and the police union’s arbitration process.

On Monday, the negotiators also discussed whether or not there was still a need for annual police summaries of misconduct if records for officers who are suspended or discharged are made public.

Rhoads said he wants to keep those reports and require county police departments to disclose, at a bare minimum, any information that could be obtained from a public records request. 

Rhoads said he’s confident the measure will pass in some form, but he wasn’t sure if it would actually pass in the conference committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Leaders in both the House and Senate have previously indicated that they want the measure to pass.

HB 285 would also make changes to the Law Enforcement Standards Board, which failed to implement basic training and certification standards for officers in the state by a deadline last year.

Rhoads said the negotiators haven’t come to an agreement on that section of the bill, which the House added Tuesday.

In its few meetings so far, the board has only managed to ask for more time and more money to do its job.

HB 285 could give the board more time, with another deadline to finish those standards by 2023. If the bill were to become law, no officers could be hired after June 30, 2023 if they don’t go through a certification process approved by the board.

Membership on the board would also change. The nine voting members who are currently on the board, all high-ranking state officials and county police chiefs, would become non-voting members.

The bill would add to the board five officers, one from each department and one state officer. There would also still be four members of the public. The way the bill is written, those public members could also be police officers, according to Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

And for him, that’s a problem. He noted that the officers hold a majority on the board and could easily pass policies they agree on.

“It’s basically police officers making standards for themselves,” Black, said. “There needs to be broader community input, and people having a say into what law enforcement standards should be.”

Black also said the state officials and police chiefs should be allowed to vote on standards the board sets.

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