WASHINGTON — Kai Kahele, the Democratic candidate for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, says he wants to see sweeping police reform.

Kai Kahele, the state senator, when he had the chance, voted against it.

Kahele is one of only four senators to oppose House Bill 285, a bill passed by the Hawaii State Legislature this month that, if it becomes law, would make public the disciplinary files of police officers found guilty of misconduct and create a certification program that would allow officials to strip bad cops of their badges.

Senator Kai Kahele at Senate press conference post State of the State 2020.
State Sen. Kai Kahele, center, voted against a police reform measure that his colleagues have tried to pass for years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Similar provisions were included in a sweeping reform bill proposed by Democrats in Washington in the wake of nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, who now faces murder charges.

Kahele has come out strongly in support of the Justice in Policing Act. The presumptive Democratic nominee has also voiced his support on Twitter, saying there was a long overdue need to confront “a culture that views black & brown lives as disposable.”

“Despite our advancements toward a vision of justice, this country’s history is also a gruesome record of the systematic killing, displacement, and oppression of millions of black people, native people, & other people of color,” Kahele, who is Native Hawaiian, said.

“Despite long decades of struggle to bring the desperate need for civil rights to the surface of our collective conscious, racism remains insidiously ingrained throughout the fabric of American culture … We must do better. We cannot stop. We cannot abate. We must demand concrete, robust reforms to our institutions. We must hold our officials accountable through civil society and voting.”

“Part of my concern is that we’ve passed this bill and the state can now say we’ve made changes and that we’ve done enough. In my opinion, we have not done enough.” — Kai Kahele

Kahele, in an interview with Civil Beat, acknowledged that his calls for police reform nationally do not square with his vote on HB 285 at the Legislature.

He said while he supported the intent of the bill — which was first introduced last year by state Rep. Scott Nishimoto — he worried that it did not go far enough.

“We often get told that half a loaf is better than no loaf, and I don’t find that acceptable,” Kahele said. “Part of my concern is that we’ve passed this bill and the state can now say we’ve made changes and that we’ve done enough. In my opinion, we have not done enough.”

Kahele said he would have preferred the Legislature to piggyback on the federal Justice in Policing Act by enacting bans on chokeholds and vascular neck restraints, both of which are potentially deadly.

He wanted HB 285 to more thoroughly address use of force policies and qualified immunity for police officers, a touchy subject that involves questions about whether individual officers should be held liable for their actions taken during the course of their duties.

He said he even supports the creation of a nationwide database that documents officer misconduct and is publicly available.

SHOPO supporters Lormona Meredith and right, Jenn Meredith hold signs in SHOPO and HPD support at the Capitol Rotunda. July 6, 2020.
The state’s police union, SHOPO, and its supporters rallied in the Capitol rotunda to oppose HB 285. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

House Bill 285 would accomplish some of these goals, most notably when it comes to making officer misconduct a matter of public record.

Twenty-five years ago the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers convinced the Legislature to enact a special provision in Hawaii’s public records law that protected officer suspension records from public view. No other public employees in the state were afforded a similar reprieve from citizen scrutiny.

A Civil Beat investigation into the Honolulu Police Department found that as a result of that secrecy, hundreds of officers — many of whom were breaking the law — were allowed to keep their jobs and their anonymity despite being found guilty of egregious behavior, such as domestic violence, drunken driving and interfering in criminal investigations.

Over the past several years, a handful of Hawaii lawmakers sought to overturn the exemption, but were ultimately unsuccessful after persistent lobbying by SHOPO.

The police union similarly fought back against HB 285, saying it would result in the unnecessary ridicule of police officers who were suspended for minor infractions and was rushed through during a truncated legislative session.

Kahele shared some of these same concerns, although he said he did not talk directly with any union lobbyist or representative while considering the bill. He also made a point to say that he was not endorsed by SHOPO for Congress. He did say he has been endorsed by the union in the past for state Senate.

Kahele worried that officers who received one-day suspensions for minor infractions, such as sleeping on the job or not filing a police report properly, would be “publicly shamed,” and that some consideration should be given to the severity of the offense before the names of officers and details of their misconduct are released to the public.

He also said police officers are already held to a higher standard than most other public employees, and in some cases come under as much scrutiny as elected officials.

“I would have wanted some type of threshold for us to have a robust conversation about rather than throw the whole kitchen sink in,” Kahele said.

Regardless, Kahele’s vote against HB 285 is unlikely to harm his chance of winning a place in Congress, where he will represent the interests of rural Oahu and the neighbor islands.

Of the four Democratic candidates in the field, he’s the most well-known and the only one who has raised any money, according to the Federal Election Commission. He also has the endorsements of many of Hawaii’s political elites, including several former governors and every other member of the state’s federal delegation besides U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who Kahele is hoping to replace.

Kahele does not face a significant challenge from a Republican in the November general election. Hawaii is a deep blue state, and the GOP is a virtual non-factor in local politics. 

Still, at least one of his opponents has noticed his vote against HB 285.

Brian Evans, a former Las Vegas showman and Democratic candidate, called out Kahele for his no vote in a questionnaire submitted to Civil Beat, saying he found it “appalling” that he would vote against legislation that “holds police accountable for misconduct and a culture of secrecy, especially with the rampant police brutality that has been the cause of riots nationwide.”

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