A lawsuit filed this week by the ACLU of Hawaii and two Oahu attorneys alleges that a Honolulu police officer “forcibly seized” a 15-year-old boy and subjected him to an “unlawful search, detention, and harassing interrogation in plain view of surrounding students and staff.”

The alleged incident at Kalaheo High School in Kailua in November 2018 resulted in the boy’s arrest.

The complaint says that the officer who instigated the incident was retaliating against the boy because the officer’s son (a fellow student) had bullied the plaintiff. The officer counters that it was the boy who was arrested that was doing the harassing.

The lawsuit is in U.S. District Court, a legal process that often takes years before the case is resolved.

What can be done more immediately, however, is to revise HPD’s Standards of Conduct policy regarding conflict of interest. The lead officer targeted in the complaint should not have been allowed to take a matter involving his son into his own hands.

Masked HPD Honolulu Police officer patrols near the Waikiki substation. October 28, 2020
A new lawsuit underscores why it is so important for HPD to have clear language in its policies regarding conflicts of interest. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

An HPD spokeswoman explained that officers and civilian employees are expected to abide by the department’s Standards of Conduct while on and off duty. If the policies are violated, disciplinary action may be forthcoming.

But here’s the rub: The phrase “conflict of interest” does not appear in HPD’s Standards of Conduct policy, the policy that all cops are sworn to uphold.

The department points to the following section of the policy as being relevant: “I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships to influence my decisions.”

But if the policy were more clear — explicit, even — it would represent a major step forward in guarding against what attorneys for the plaintiffs (the boy and his parents) argue has become an all-too-common practice of officers abusing their power.

That’s why the lawsuit also names the City and County of Honolulu as a defendant. The government “has an affirmative duty to enact specific policies and procedures that provide guidance for HPD officers and supervisors to prevent foreseeable harm from occurring,” the lawsuit contends.

Because that guidance was not provided, the lawsuit explains, Honolulu “breached its duty by failing to enact any affirmative policies or procedures to recognize, manage, and prevent actual and potential conflicts of interest in law enforcement.”

To bolster its case, the lawsuit makes reference to the Seattle Police Department Manual that reads, “Employees will not engage in enforcement, investigative, or administrative functions that create or give the appearance of conflicts of interest.” It continues:

“Employees will not investigate events where they are involved. This also applies where any person with whom the employee has a personal relationship is involved in the event.”

Seattle’s police manual also says that employees must “immediately disclose” to their superiors “any activities or relationships that may present an actual, potential, or apparent conflict of interest for themselves or other Department employees.”

Had that language been in HPD’s Standards of Conduct policy, the lawsuit says, the police officer at the center of things would have been required to identify and disclose his interests.

It’s not just Seattle that gets in right when it comes to the police and conflicts of interest. Very similar rules are in the policies of the Boston Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department, the San Diego Police Department, the Austin Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Oakland Police Department.

It will not be easy to change HPD’s policy, even if the mayor, City Council and Police Commission push for it.

That’s because, while the chief of police has the power to amend, revoke or repeal the Standards of Conduct, it has to be preceded by consultation with the employees’ unions “as provided by the appropriate collective bargaining agreements in force.”

That means they have to get through the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers. Good luck with that. It’s SHOPO, of course, that is still trying to hide police misconduct records even though a new law requires disclosure.

Including a conflict of interests directive in HPD’s manual will not in and of itself put an end to what has been described as a culture of impunity in our police department.

Indeed, the current policy was approved in December 2016 by then Police Chief Louis Kealoha, whose conviction last year on conspiracy and obstruction of justice not only was the poster child for conflict of interest — he used his police powers against a relative to get a leg up in a civil lawsuit — it showed that the misuse of public power was embraced at the very top.

It’s another good reason for the Legislature to fund a staff for the new Law Enforcement Standards Board. The board is tasked with putting in place statewide standards for county and state police agencies but has yet to get any real momentum because lawmakers haven’t given it any money to operate. A conflict of interest standard should be at the top of its list.

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