Amid global calls for better accountability in police killings, Hawaii’s panel responsible for reviewing officer-involved deaths says it won’t meet until “it is appropriate” because of concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one board member says.
Meanwhile, despite overwhelming public attention on police killings and public pressure on local governments across the U.S. for better oversight of police actions no one on Hawaii’s Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board will discuss what cases it is reviewing.
The nine-member Hawaii board was created by the Legislature in 2017. But it has met only a handful of times since its inception, and this year, it met just once, in January.
The review board is tasked with investigating officer-involved deaths independent of internal investigations done by the county police departments. After agencies complete their own investigations of the killings, the board is supposed to review all the case materials before making a recommendation to county prosecutors.
It’s so far finished just one case in its three-year history.
On Oahu alone, there have been at least 15 cases of police killings that the board could review. While the law governing the board doesn’t specify a time period in which the panel must begin and end its review, it requires that the the board shall “expeditiously” make recommendations to county prosecutors.
Kevin Takata, a board member who also heads the Criminal Justice Division in the Attorney General’s Office, said in an email Tuesday that the board is not meeting because of the pandemic. He cited Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamation that continues a partial suspension of the state’s public meetings law.
In the past week, Civil Beat attempted to reach six of the eight members currently on the board, including Takata, to discuss the status of some of the cases it might be reviewing and when it could reconvene. Takata is the only one who responded.
“In response to your request for information addressed to some of the Review Board’s members, this is to inform you that the Review Board has suspended meetings due to COVID-19 restrictions and the Governor’s 9th Supplementary Proclamation,” Takata wrote in his email.
Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board
Katy Chen, citizen
Lance Goto, Deputy AG
Jay Kimura, former Hawaii County Deputy Prosecutor
Boyd Mossman, former Maui County Prosecutor
Vice Chair Barbara Richardson, former Oahu district court judge
Kevin Takata, former Kauai Deputy Prosecutor
Chair Iwalani White, former Honolulu Deputy Prosecutor
Gary Yabuta, former Maui Police Chief
Ige suspended Hawaii’s open meetings law in March, but has since backed off on that suspension to get some boards back to work. Takata cites a section of Ige’s proclamation that says boards should only be meeting during the emergency period “to comply with a law, operational necessity, or in furtherance of emergency responses to COVID-19.”
Other oversight boards, however, are continuing to meet, including the Honolulu Police Commission, the state Ethics Commission, the Campaign Spending Commission and the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, just to name a few.
“When it is appropriate to resume the Review Board’s meetings, the public will be notified,” Takata wrote in the email.
The board can conduct its own investigations into killings by police officers, and recommend to county prosecutors if charges should be filed, if the death was justified, or if there should be more investigation in the case.
The board is made up of former prosecutors from each county, a deputy in the Attorney General’s Office, a former high ranking officer and at least two citizens with no law enforcement background. However, one of those citizen positions has been vacant for several months now.
The board was set up by an act of the Legislature in 2017, but it didn’t take on its first case until 2018.
At its January meeting, even as the board voted to publicly release some details in cases it reviews, it took up the death of Renie Cablay, the prison guard, in a closed-door session of the meeting out of the public eye.
Also during the January meeting, the board voted to release reports on its findings and recommendations after it sends those to a county prosecutor. So far just one report like that, the shooting death of Justin Waiki on the Big Island, has been made available.
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said a key purpose of the board is to provide a check on prosecutors’ decisions to charge or not charge officers involved in deaths.
“The only time you have public accountability is if the recommendations of the board become publicly accessible at some point,” he said.
Former state Sen. Will Espero, who introduced the legislation that created the board, agreed that the board’s reports should be made public.
“Why wouldn’t they want to openly express their thoughts, especially in a fatal shooting where someone died,” he said.
In most other states, boards with independent oversight of police killings are organized at the city or county level, Espero said. Hawaii is an outlier in that its review board has jurisdiction over the entire state.
Last year, the AG’s office declined to press charges in a murder investigation involving a deputy sheriff who shot Delmar Espejo during a struggle at the State Capitol. Espero, who is running for a seat on the Honolulu City Council, said he would like to see the board review that case.
The review board can’t investigate shootings by prison and jail guards, who are not considered law enforcement officers in Hawaii. That means the board couldn’t offer an independent review of the shooting death of Maurice Arrisgado Jr., who was shot while, according to prison officials, he was escaping from the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The Legislature could take another look at the board and expand its powers when it reviews the law in 2022, the year the board is set to come to an end. Espero said that sunset provision was put into law to force legislators to reevaluate the board, decide if it’s been successful or not, and look at any changes that should be made to it.
“Maybe it’s needed, maybe it’s not,” he said. “I’d like to think it’s needed. That’s why we passed it.”
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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at email@example.com.