Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard continues to defend her department against allegations of racial bias that stem from reviews of her own agency’s records.

HPD data shows that people of color were arrested for COVID-19 stay-at-home violations at higher rates and are disproportionately targets of police uses of force. In a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday, the chief said people are drawing false conclusions about those points.

“Certain media outlets have used our arrest log to draw a misleading and inaccurate correlation between arrests and race. This correlation would be a false one,” she wrote. “Our officers, who themselves come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, are trained to observe and respond to an individual’s behavior and actions, not race or ethnicity.”

HPD Chief of Police Susan Ballard at the police commission meeting.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard wrote the department is “always looking for ways to improve.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The chief was responding to a letter from ACLU Legal Director Mateo Caballero who expressed concern about the racial disparities reported on by Hawaii Public Radio and Civil Beat.

“Discriminatory enforcement of criminal laws against Black people was one of the central evils meant to be addressed by the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Caballero wrote. “When HPD officers disproportionally or selectively enforce criminal laws against members of one race or socio-economic class, they break that promise and violate the laws and constitutions they have sworn to uphold.”

Caballero wrote that requiring officers to undergo implicit bias training, which the chief said is already happening, is “not enough.” He made several suggestions including ending “aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses” such as drug possession, which he said funnels young and poor people into the criminal justice system.

“Such a policy could free up additional resources to fund public health, economic, and education initiatives that address the social and health challenges at the root of most criminal offenses,” he said.

The ACLU’s Mateo Caballero, seen here in 2017, said HPD needs to take action against racial biases. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Caballero also called for an end to “racial and wealth-based profiling” that impacts people of color and those experiencing homelessness.

“Racial profiling is not only the act of selecting or targeting minorities for law enforcement contact but also includes policies or practices (such as broken window policing or sweeps) that have a disparate impact on disadvantaged communities,” he wrote.

HPD should also end the use of performance metrics like citation totals to measure productivity and effectiveness, Caballero argued. And he said the department should routinely collect and publish data on its policing practices, including demographic data.

Ballard responded that while racial bias and prejudice does exist in Hawaii, it’s not as bad as on the mainland.

“Our police force is incredibly diverse, is a better reflection of the community we serve, and racial tension between the community and police here is less extreme than on the mainland,” she wrote. “Further, unlike many departments whose officers live far from or even outside of their jurisdictions, Honolulu police officers live in the city and county that they serve.”

She noted that the department is always looking for ways to better itself. For example, HPD has reached out to community organizations to improve its relationship with Micronesian residents, she wrote.

“To say, however, that the HPD targets any group based solely on their ethnicity, is unfair, unfounded, and just plain wrong,” she said.

As for reducing enforcement of certain offenses, Ballard said that’s a job for legislators, not the police.

“The legislative process would be a clearer and fairer way of addressing the situation where the will of the community can be heard,” she said.

The chief noted that in many cases, the work of social services is left to law enforcement. HPD is doing what it can, she said.

That includes implementing programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, in which low-level offenders are directed to treatment; Health Efficiency Long-Term Partnerships, or HELP, which provides homeless people in Chinatown with medical care and access to social services; and Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage, or POST, the city’s police-run tent village where homeless people can quarantine during COVID-19 and get connected to shelters.

“From assisting the homeless and addressing mental health issues to enforcing social distancing rules, most of the burden has fallen on the shoulders of law enforcement,” she wrote. “I say this not as an excuse, but in the hopes of educating people so they can help us find viable solutions and hold other social service agencies accountable.”

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