Honolulu police issued a record number of citations in recent weeks, straining the court system, frustrating residents and further calling into question the city’s approach to dealing with the public health crisis.
In the last month alone, the Honolulu Police Department has issued approximately 44,000 citations related to the mayor’s pandemic rules and arrested 65 people for violations.
It’s more than double the total of all criminal cases the District Court handled in 2019.
“A lot of people think we need to do more warnings,” Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told the Honolulu Police Commission Wednesday as she recited the numbers. “Well, we did warn from March until August, we had over 11,000 warnings. We actually had more warnings than we did citations. It did not work. The numbers kept coming up. So we switched to more enforcement.”
It’s a massive escalation. For comparison, from March through July, HPD issued only 9,465 coronavirus-related citations, according to the court’s log. The busiest month was April with 5,648 citations.
Fast forward to now: Officers handed out 5,000 citations just last weekend, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said this week.
The mountain of citations illustrates how Caldwell has embraced the police department as a tool for addressing the pandemic. However, his strategy is causing anger and stress among residents.
“This is very abusive,” said Patrick Steinemann who was cited in Kailua last month when he was riding through a park by himself. “This is detrimental to people’s health, and it makes no sense.”
A review of court records yielded numerous citations that seem to have little to do with protecting public health.
Officers have issued citations to individuals walking alone outside, parents at the beach with their own children and to homeless people who live outdoors. One man was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation, his citation shows. When officers asked him where he was going, he said he was just “driving around.” He was cited for engaging in nonessential activity.
The narrative descriptions on some citations document innocuous activity.
“While on routine patrol, I observed a female exercising inside Waipio Neighborhood Park,” one officer wrote. “Female was stopped and cited for park closure.”
Everyone who receives a citation gets a court date, which can be attended via Zoom. People found in violation are guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, up to a year in jail or both.
The prospect of a criminal record is a scary experience for those who have been cited.
“It’s not a fine,” Steinemann said. “You’re talking about criminal activity. That is shocking in itself.”
In July, there were only 255 citations issued, according to the court’s data. But in August, there was a major shift in strategy.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced on Aug. 6 that he would shut down parks, beaches and trails for the second time. At a press conference, Ballard said officers would be taking a new tack and announced the formation of a 160-officer team that would patrol the island seven days a week for “strategic enforcements.” HPD also introduced a phone number and email address citizens can use to report scofflaws.
“The increase in the number of citations is largely due to the creation of COVID enforcement teams,” said HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu by email. “These teams follow up on information that’s called in to the hotline and check areas, such as beaches and parks, for violations.”
The current order restricts visits to beaches and parks to solo activity, but the mayor has indicated he may allow gatherings of up to five next week.
Shortly before the beaches and parks closed last month, at least one of HPD’s eight districts implemented a citation quota.
A July 23 memo titled “DISTRICT 7 MOVING FORWARD” said that effective immediately, the 18 officers in East Honolulu would be expected to meet a “daily performance goal” of two citations per day, according to a copy of the notice obtained by Civil Beat.
Yu declined to be interviewed about the quota. By email, she said it applies to all violations, not just those related to the mayor’s pandemic orders.
Asked if other districts have ticket quotas, she said there are no particular goals for each district but that officers are supposed to take action when they observe violations. That could mean a warning, citation or arrest.
“Each district commander has expectations of the officers under his or her command, and the District 7 command staff stated its expectations in several areas, including promoting public safety through proactive patrol and enforcement,” Yu wrote.
Civil Beat requested an interview with the chief on Tuesday. Yu said on Wednesday that Ballard was unavailable.
The Caldwell administration has allocated over $30 million to HPD in federal CARES Act funds – more than has been budgeted for rent, utility and child care relief for residents.
A spending breakdown shows, among other things, nearly $15 million in overtime and other differential pay, $4.6 million for police service officer contracts, $1.6 million on new trucks and over a half-million dollars on ATVs and UTVs.
It’s all part of a strategy to heavily police the outdoors despite the fact that scientists have said for months that the virus spreads mostly indoors, either person to person or through breathing in droplets hanging in the air. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually encourages people to use outdoor spaces while following social distancing guidelines about staying at least 6 feet apart.
“The environmental conditions of sun, breeze and dryish air mitigate against virus survival,” Keith Neal, emeritus professor of epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, England, recently told the Wall Street Journal.
Hawaii’s own data backs that up.
As of this week, the Department of Health identified cases associated with 21 long-term care homes, including the Avalon Health Care Group in Hilo where at least 68 residents and 30 staff have been infected and over a dozen veterans have died.
There have been over 300 cases among inmates and staff at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cluster totals released last month showed at least 31 cases related to “health plan offices, 20 cases at a homeless shelter and 75 linked to a large funeral.”
Among the positive cases are the city’s own employees at Honolulu Hale, firefighters in at least three stations and police officers themselves. DOH said last month that nearly a dozen cases could be connected to a July potluck on city property.
The DOH has not publicly identified a single case of COVID-19 that it believes was spread in a beach or park.
In Honolulu, Caldwell’s latest order prohibits a family from visiting the beach together but allows them to go shopping as a group at Target. This week, he acknowledged people’s frustration.
“For the most part I’m grateful for what folks have been doing to comply with orders that sometimes don’t make sense — but it’s all about enforcement and trying to manage the spread,” Caldwell said.
Stewart Taggart has been cited twice in Kailua while passing through a park to access the ocean by himself – an activity the city has explicitly said is allowed. Taggart said he understands and agrees with many of the rules about sheltering in place during the pandemic, but he feels the city has gone too far. The second time he was cited, it was by an officer on an ATV, which Taggart considers an unnecessary show of police “theater.”
“There was nobody else around in the park,” he said. “I got a ticket nonetheless.”
Other jurisdictions have come up with ways to facilitate social distancing while allowing households to enjoy the outdoors.
For instance, a town in Belgium adopted “beach bubbles” – lines in the sand showing the boundaries of 32-square-foot boxes, Reuters reported. The country also implemented a system to use mobile data to provide live information to the public about beach crowds so they can reroute to less busy areas.
In Thailand, workers count people as they enter beaches to ensure the area doesn’t become overcrowded, the Washington Post reported.
HPD’s approach is not in line with best practices outlined in “Policing in a Time of Pandemic: Recommendations for Law Enforcement,” a white paper written by Rosa Brooks and Christy Lopez, co-directors of the Georgetown Law School’s Innovative Policing Program.
“To maximize the public safety impact of stay-at-home orders, enforcement should focus on education and assistance, fueled by heavy doses of compassion and courage,” they wrote. “These efforts should include plans for seeking out vulnerable people, assessing their needs, and connecting them with the services and resources they need.”
The flurry of new cases is overwhelming the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office, according to spokesman Brooks Baehr, who put the blame on rule-breakers, not HPD.
“Those who disregard emergency orders are placing a tremendous strain on the prosecutor’s office, the broader law enforcement community and the judicial system,” he said in an emailed statement.
In the week of Aug. 24 alone, deputy prosecutors assigned to the District Court handled approximately 5,250 new and previously continued cases, most through virtual hearings, he said.
There are so many citations that court’s staff is struggling to input them fast enough into the court’s database – a process that is done manually.
“At the Honolulu District Court, we normally have three employees doing this work full time,” Kagehiro said. “Because of the recent influx in citations, another seven employees are temporarily assigned to create criminal citation cases on a full-time basis. In addition, thanks to the teamwork in the Legal Documents Branch, other employees are pitching in when their regular, essential work is completed.”
The increased workload is happening at a time when court resources have been reduced due to budget constraints, Kagehiro said.
Hundreds of cases have been dismissed so far, according to the court’s data. In some cases, prosecutors are filing motions to the court stating they don’t wish to press charges against those cited.
“We are handling the unprecedented number of criminal citations the way we have always handled them,” Baehr said. “If there is sufficient evidence to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, we charge. If not, we must decline to charge.”
Some people are pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser punishment of a $100 fine. That money goes to the state’s general fund, Kagehiro said, not city coffers.
The large volume of cases is a challenge for everyone, Baehr said.
“We are taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to ease the burden faced by our Misdemeanor Division,” he said. “We remain prepared to handle these cases as timely and efficiently as the system allows. We are in meetings with stakeholders to discuss the challenges posed by the extraordinary number of emergency order citations and to find a fair and workable solution for all involved in the handling of these cases.”
Despite these difficulties, Ballard said at Wednesday’s police commission meeting that HPD has no intention of slowing down. She said representatives of the police department, prosecutor’s office and judicial system will be meeting on Friday to see “if something can be done” to move cases along.
“Obviously, we are not going to stop issuing citations, warnings or arrests if necessary,” she said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.