Hawaii’s police union doesn’t want you to know why Darren Cachola is still a cop.

Cachola was fired by the Honolulu Police Department after a 2014 incident in which he was caught on surveillance video pummeling his girlfriend inside a Waipahu restaurant.

But in 2018, when the department announced that an arbitrator had overturned Cachola’s termination for a six-month suspension, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers filed a lawsuit to keep the record of that decision confidential.

The Honolulu Police Department tried to fire Darren Cachola after a high-profile case of alleged domestic abuse.

HPD

That case is still ongoing despite the fact the Legislature passed a law this summer to make officers’ disciplinary records a matter of public record when they’re suspended or fired for misconduct.

Cachola’s circumstances clearly meet the threshold for disclosure, yet SHOPO has argued in court records that the new law shouldn’t be applied retroactively to Cachola and that he still has a significant privacy interest in keeping the details of the arbitration proceeding secret.

Civil Beat is a party to the litigation and has tried for more than two years to secure the release of Cachola’s arbitration decision through court action. In February 2019, First Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ruled that there was a significant public interest in disclosing the arbitration records, including a lengthy investigative report. But SHOPO appealed.

Civil Beat’s attorney, Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, filed a motion with the Hawaii Supreme Court last week asking for the case to be declared moot and to force the release of Cachola’s records.

Black’s argument was terse from the beginning.

“The secrecy needs to stop,” he said.

Black wrote that for nearly two decades SHOPO “coerced” city officials into rejecting nearly every public records request it received for an officer’s disciplinary suspension files, and that as a result many of those documents have been lost to “aggressive document destruction policies” pushed by the union in its collective bargaining agreement.

SHOPO relied on an exemption it helped create in the Uniform Information Practices Act that blocked access to county police officers’ disciplinary files unless they were fired. It was a unique privilege afforded no other government employee in the state.

In September, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed Act 47 into law effectively ending the exemption.

That meant the disciplinary records of hundreds of officers who have been suspended for serious misconduct, ranging from drunken driving and drug use to violence against women and interfering in federal investigations, would be disclosable under the law.

“The public interest in what happened and how it all unfolded is just off the charts.” — Brian Black, Civil Beat Law Center

Still, SHOPO has continued to fight back on behalf of Cachola, filing motions meant to keep his disciplinary file hidden from public view.

“Personally I’ve never really understood why this was the incident that SHOPO chose to challenge,” Black said. “The public interest in what happened and how it all unfolded is just off the charts. So why this one and why continue to challenge it after the Legislature passed Act 47, I don’t know.”

Cachola has been a liability for the Honolulu Police Department at least dating back to September 2014 when he was caught on surveillance video physically attacking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.

The incident sparked outrage among women lawmakers, many of whom called on HPD to confront domestic violence within its ranks and the broader community.

Honolulu prosecutors, however, refused to charge Cachola.

The department tried to fire him, but in February 2018 was forced to reinstate him after union officials argued before an arbitrator that he should get his job back.

Cachola’s termination was overturned and a six-month suspension imposed instead, despite the fact he had again been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife.

She ultimately sued Cachola and HPD for an attempted cover-up and recently settled the case for $320,000, according to a report from Hawaii News Now. The Honolulu City Council still needs to approve the settlement.

Keani Alapa, SHOPO’s attorney in the case, did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment for this story.

In a brief interview, SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu said he was unsure of the status of the litigation, but that in general the union opposed the release of officers’ disciplinary records.

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu speaks to a reporter at a SHOPO gathering held at the Capitol Rotunda. July 6, 2020

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu has opposed efforts to increase transparency surrounding officer misconduct.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Criminal cases are already a matter of public record through the courts, he said, but administrative investigations, even those involving egregious allegations of misconduct, should remain confidential.

In Cachola’s case, Lutu said he worried that the identities of other officers involved in his investigation would become public. Lutu also expressed concern that making an arbitrator’s name public could hurt the union in future cases, although he did not elaborate on what exactly he meant by that.

The ACLU of Hawaii, meanwhile, cited Cachola in a civil rights lawsuit against HPD, saying that his case exemplifies abuses of power within the department and the unwillingness of the agency to hold itself or its officers accountable.

Much of the problem with bringing about real reform when it comes to abuse of power, attorneys involved in that litigation said, is that police discipline only addresses a specific officer’s wrongdoing and doesn’t extend to other officers who may have played a role in aiding or covering up the abuse, including supervisors.

SHOPO is the reason most officer misconduct records have been kept secret in the first place in Hawaii, and the union has fought vigorously to keep it that way.

The union opposed House Bill 285 and its many iterations that were introduced in recent years.

While SHOPO was almost always successful in lobbying legislators to keep the confidentiality provision, the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer proved to be the catalyst needed to give lawmakers the political will to stand up to the union.

Lutu downplayed the need for added transparency even as many across the U.S. are calling for more accountability of police officers.

“I think you’re mixing us up with the mainland,” Lutu said.

Hawaii is not immune to the problems faced in other parts of the country when it comes to racial bias in policing and fatal use of force.

Officer misconduct has also played a central role in the public discourse for many years, especially after former HPD chief, Louis Kealoha, was indicted along with his wife, Katherine, for using a secret police unit to frame a family member.

Police unions across the country have tried to block access to officers’ disciplinary files. Lawsuits have been filed in New York, New Jersey and California to stop the public from getting access to records detailing officer misconduct and improper uses of force.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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