Aaron Torres died handcuffed, face down in the dirt, legs shackled, with three Honolulu police officers pressed on his back outside his Nanakuli home. The 37-year-old’s death in 2012 was widely reported and cost city taxpayers $1.4 million in a wrongful death settlement.
Yet, according to the Honolulu Police Department’s yearly tally of lethal use of force incidents, his death never happened. The 2012 report says there were no police killings that year.
At least 29 people were killed by Honolulu police officers between 2010 and 2019, according to Civil Beat’s review of media reports and public records obtained from HPD and the prosecuting attorney’s office.
But our analysis of HPD data found that the department regularly undercounts the number of people killed by its police officers in annual use of force reports. These yearly summaries compile data on every use of force incident, ranging from verbal commands to lethal force, and are used to help shape police training priorities.
Between 2010 and 2018, HPD’s annual reports say only 10 individuals were killed by police. But a review of news articles and public records shows more than twice as many people died during that time period after run-ins with Honolulu police officers.
HPD has yet to release its 2019 use of force report, but Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for the department, told Civil Beat two weeks ago that officers killed six people that year. Civil Beat’s review found eight. After reviewing our findings, Yu said the previous figure was mistaken and the correct number is eight — the most people killed by Honolulu police in a single year in the last decade.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said she only recently realized the department’s use of force annual reports are flawed. She said HPD is delaying the release of the 2019 report to ensure that it’s accurate.
“To be honest with you some of the stuff didn’t make sense to us either,” she said. “Actually, I was not thrilled.”
Among the uncounted were Reno Velleses, who was shot four times in 2010 after reportedly waving a machete at police officers in a Waianae parking lot; Herbden Gabriel, who was shot in the chest in 2011 after he allegedly lowered a gun toward an officer; and Richard Nelson, who in 2014, reportedly almost hit a cop with his vehicle as he tried to flee in Waikiki.
Obtaining information about individual cases involving lethal force is very difficult. The names of officers involved in the deaths are not released unless officers are arrested, and Yu said she couldn’t recall the last time that happened. A statewide review board for police killings was created in 2017, but so far has only reviewed one case — the 2018 shooting death of a murder suspect on Hawaii island. Even HPD’s use of force policy has numerous redactions.
Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and local protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Ballard temporarily suspended the department’s use of vascular neck restraints and announced a review of its use-of-force policy.
Yet missing data on police killings makes it impossible to tell just how widespread the use of lethal force is in Honolulu and complicates efforts to enact meaningful reforms.
“This moment demonstrates how important it is to keep accurate records and data on these types of events, and also why it’s so critical that the information be publicly reported so that policymakers and the community can identify problems and address them both in the short and long term,” says Kamaile Maldonado, a public policy advocate at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
She said looking at the names of the people killed by police, “it appears that police use of force is a serious issue in the Hawaiian community.”
“We hope that HPD and other law enforcement agencies will work with us and the community to improve their data, transparency, policing practices and trust among the community,” Maldonado said.
In four separate years — 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 — HPD’s annual use of force summaries reported no lethal force incidents. But our review found seven people, including Torres, died in those years: Reno Velleses, Michael Kahana Davis, Mark Ahnee, Herbden Gabriel, Richard Nelson and James Pickard Jr.
In 2018, the department reported three people died during encounters with police, but our review found six. It’s unclear who was counted and who was left out because the use of force reports don’t include any names of people killed.
There were at least eight officer-involved deaths in 2019, including five shootings for which there were televised press conferences.
They included several cases that were forwarded to the Honolulu prosecutor’s office, including the death of 49-year-old Sherianne Leinaala Nixon, who reportedly fell into a coma after being restrained by police and died the next day.
The discrepancy in the number of deaths is concerning, said David Johnson, professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii Manoa who has written and researched extensively on criminal justice issues.
“One possible answer is, they understate the true numbers because they can get away with it,” he said. He said local criminal justice authorities have “way too much discretion” over what to be held accountable for.
There are fewer journalists and legislators who are holding them accountable, while state laws shield officer misconduct from disclosure, Johnson said. For instance, he said lawmakers have failed for years to pass meaningful legislation mandating disclosure of names of law enforcement officers who get in trouble.
“I would rate Hawaii very badly in this information transparency and accountability way,” he said.
HPD posts many reports on its website: glossy police commission annual reports with colorful pictures and graphs; annual crime statistics reports with messages from the mayor; and annual department reports with lists of officers who won awards and descriptions of successful community events.
But the department’s annual use of force summary reports aren’t posted, requiring the public to specifically know about and request them if they want to see them.
House Speaker Scott Saiki says that should change.
“The more information that is made available to the public, the better because it allows the public to evaluate the effectiveness of current procedures and standards,” he said.
Poor data on police killings is a national problem, one that didn’t gain traction until after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, says Nick Chagnon, a University of Hawaii sociology and women’s studies lecturer.
In 2015, the FBI created a national data collection program for use of force in local policing, but participation isn’t mandatory. When a pilot study launched in 2017, none of the Hawaii agencies participated. The national data collection launched in 2019, and Yu says HPD has submitted data on all incidents since Jan. 1, 2019.
Ballard says she wants to do better. Following recent protests, she said HPD reviewed its annual use of force summaries and realized that the statistics included in the annual reports couldn’t be reproduced.
“It is unfortunate,” she said, “but the good thing about all this is that we have found that there are flaws in our reports and we are going to be working on making sure that it is much more — well, that it is accurate, period.”
She says the reports may be overstating how often officers draw their guns because it includes incidents when officers are required by policy to do so, such as during building searches or felony car stops. Another one of her goals is to make sure that the reports are easy to understand.
“We’re not going to make it so convoluted that people don’t know what they’re looking at,” Ballard said. “We’re going to make it simple, we’re going to make it clear and we’re going to give them what they need to know.”
A committee made up of people from different HPD divisions as well as a police commissioner plans to review the use of force policy over two to three months.
She didn’t have an answer for why the annual use of force reports haven’t been posted online.
“It just hasn’t been, there’s no reason why it cannot,” she said, adding that the 2019 report will be posted.
But first, the information has to be correct.
It’s critical for police departments to keep an accurate tally of annual police killings, said Darrel Stephens, the former executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and retired head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina.
Departments should collect and share details about the circumstances of the incident, whether it followed established policy and if the officers were disciplined or charged for their actions.
Specific demographic details, such as age, race and gender, should also be collected on everyone involved, from the officer to the suspect. Stephens pointed to the Los Angeles Police Department as a good example, noting that the department posts online the police commission’s review of lethal use of force incidents.
Such data can be used to ensure that officers are held accountable and modify training practices to hopefully lessen the frequency of deadly encounters.
“Deadly force and officer involved shootings should be the easiest to track because there aren’t that many of them that take place,” he said. “If you have a department that only has six, seven, eight or ten shooting situations in a year that’s not that hard to keep track of and it should be kept track of.”
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