A long-urged reform of Hawaii’s open records laws to make more police disciplinary records available to the public passed the Legislature Monday.
House Bill 285 cleared the Senate with little discussion in a 20-4 vote. It passed in the House after much deliberation, 37 to 14.
Measures similar to HB 285 have failed to pass the Legislature for at least the past five years.
Twenty-five years ago, the Legislature granted an exemption in the state public records law to county police officers, closing off the public’s ability to see disciplinary files of officers who were suspended for misconduct. Records of officers who were fired were publicly available after the termination was final, a process that often takes years when it goes through a union grievance process.
Disciplinary files for all other public employees who are suspended or discharged are publicly available under the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act. But in 1995, lobbying by the statewide police union convinced lawmakers to exempt county police from the requirement.
HB 285 had been hung up in a conference committee between the House and Senate since April 2019. In early June, as the Black Lives Matter movement swept through the country calling for greater police accountability, legislative leaders decided to take another look at the bill.
The bill would also require that county police departments disclose the names of officers who are suspended or fired in annual reports to the Legislature, which are also made public.
The measure, which has long been supported by open government advocates, has been met with vehement opposition by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the statewide police union.
SHOPO took out a full-page advertisement in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Sunday edition advocating against the bill. The union also posted a three-page letter by the union board’s treasurer, James “Kimo” Smith, which outlines the union’s opposition to HB 285.
“The naming of our police officers prior to full investigation and disposition of alleged administrative and/or conduct violations will be premature,” Smith wrote. “Especially if that officer is found to have done nothing wrong or that suspension was to allow for the administrative process to run its course.”
“There is no pandemic of racism” in the islands. — Minority Leader Gene Ward
Shortly before the vote, dozens of police union supporters showed up to protest the bill at the State Capitol. They wore shirts saying “We Protect All Families, Protect Ours.” A social media post for the rally instructed supporters that they “cannot be in any HPD uniform.”
Smith said that wording in the bill could conflict with policies police departments and unions already have in place, especially if names of officers or records are released after a supervisor has suspended them but before the police chief has a chance to vet any allegations against the officer.
In the House, HB 285 drew extensive floor discussion. Those in opposition to the bill — including four of the five Republicans in the chamber — said they were worried that the public disclosure of officers’ names would shame the officers and their families.
Under the public records law, while the names would only be disclosed after a suspension or discharge was final, including after any arbitration had been settled, opponents said the bill effectively denied police their due process rights by bypassing adjudication of individual cases.
GOP Rep. Val Okimoto said public disclosure would “ruin their reputation for life.”
Opponents also said that the systemic racism that plagues police departments on the mainland — and that contributed to the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 — does not exist in Hawaii.
Democratic Rep. Lynn DeCoite, for example, said the rioting and destruction of public property during recent protests in mainland cities does not happen in the islands.
“There is no pandemic of racism” in the islands, said Minority Leader Gene Ward.
But Rep. Chris Lee pointed out that the disclosure of police names had been an issue debated at the Legislature for many years. The current bill was actually introduced and debated in the 2019 session, long before the Black Lives Matter protests seized the nation’s attention.
Lee said HB 285 treats law enforcement officers “like any other state employee” with respect to public access to government records. Passage of the bill, Lee said, would build public trust and lead to a safer and better Hawaii.
Reps. John Mizuno and Rida Cabanilla, meanwhile, said that people of color — especially recent immigrants — do experience racism in the islands. Mizuno called racism a “disease” while Cabanilla said HB 285 would help “restore public integrity to the force.”
She added, “The police are people just like us. They are not demigods.”
Ten of the 46 House Democrats voted against HB 285.
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said accusations that the bill would circumvent due process rights does not match the intent of the bill.
He called the Legislature’s vote a “really amazing step in the right direction.”
“I couldn’t imagine why Gov. Ige wouldn’t approve this as soon as possible,” Black said.
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