For the first time in nearly two decades, county police departments have begun to release the names of officers who have been suspended for serious misconduct.

The change is the result of new legislation signed into law by Hawaii Gov. David Ige in September following the killing in Minnesota of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer. The legislation eliminated an exemption in Hawaii’s public records law that kept most officers’ disciplinary files confidential.

Civil Beat requested misconduct records from all four county police departments regarding officers who had been suspended when the law was passed.

Among the first documents released was an arbitration decision involving Honolulu Police Department Ofc. William Suarez, who was arrested in 2011 for drunken driving after he crashed his car into a parked vehicle near the Ala Moana Shopping Center and then fled the scene of the accident.

Louis Kealoha, who was Honolulu’s police chief at the time, fired Suarez for lying to investigators about the circumstances of the crash, but Hawaii’s police union was successful in poking holes in HPD’s investigation and convincing an arbitrator in a series of closed door hearings to overturn the termination.

HPD Officer at Mauna Kea Access Road with camera. July 17, 2019

In Hawaii, the statewide police union often cites its collective bargaining agreement as preventing public oversight of police misconduct.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Suarez, who had previously been disciplined for falsifying records and searching a suspect’s backpack without a warrant, was ultimately reinstated. The arbitrator gave him a 15-day suspension along with back pay for the time he missed while fighting to keep his job.

“It is extremely important that these records be made available to the public,” said Loretta Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor who up until January was chair of the Honolulu Police Commission.

“Sometimes we forget that the police work for us, and that we pay every single penny of their salaries, their pensions, their benefits, their sick leave, their vacation and their retirements. They are public servants and it is incumbent on us, their employer, to check to see how well they are serving.”

The Suarez decision provides a brief glimpse into a secretive process — dictated by union contract — that can play out for many years and keep problem officers on the streets despite the wishes of a police chief who wants them stripped of their badges.

In Suarez’s case, the Honolulu Police Department fired him in June 2012 only to have it overturned more than two years later, in January 2014, after a vigorous challenge from the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and a final decision by a third party arbitrator.

For Sheehan, who spent more than two decades working in law enforcement, the decision highlighted the struggles of HPD and its internal affairs investigators — part of the Professional Standards Office — when it came to holding Suarez accountable.

The decision also served as a reminder of the power of SHOPO, she said, which represents nearly 2,000 county police officers in Hawaii.

“This arbitration decision reflects sloppy investigation, sloppy charging decisions and sloppy thinking (by HPD),” Sheehan said. “SHOPO did a very good job in this case, and I think we should be very clear that that’s what SHOPO’s job is. It goes to bat for its members.”

Ofc. William Suarez

HPD

There’s little recourse for HPD after an arbitrator decides to reinstate an officer, according to Assistant Chief Rade Vanic. Arbitration decisions are binding, which means there’s almost no opportunity to appeal the decision unless there was a flaw in the process itself, such as bias or fraud on the part of the arbitrator.

Vanic said that if the department wants to fire an officer, HPD and its investigators need to be thorough so that the chief’s decision is not later overturned on a technicality, such as a missed deadline or failing to list the proper violation of the department’s standards of conduct.

“We’ll do our part to make sure we hold our officers accountable and we’ll also do our part to make sure the process is adhered to,” Vanic said.

“It’s never an easy thing to tell someone, ‘Hey, you’re no longer an officer anymore.’ It’s not something that is an enjoyable task, but it is a task that’s necessary sometimes because at the end of the day we need to make sure that we’re able to hold our officers accountable for the sake of the public trust.”

‘An Air Of Animosity’

Suarez’s termination and eventual reinstatement are detailed in a 52-page arbitration decision that laid out both Suarez’s version of events from the night of the accident as well as the many ways SHOPO challenged HPD’s investigation.

Suarez did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for an interview.

The arbitrator, Larry Cundiff, described the hearings as “long and cantankerous.” The proceedings were so heated, he said, that he threatened to terminate them and was forced to admonish both SHOPO and the city’s attorneys for their “non-professionalism.”

Even as tempers cooled, Cundiff wrote, “there was an air of animosity and aversion throughout the entire length of the Hearing.”

Black Lives Matter marchers cross Ala Moana Blvd with a a’Defund Police’ sign as they head towards the Capitol.

Nationwide calls for police reform reached the islands this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to the arbitration record, Suarez crashed into a parked car while driving in the area of Kona and Pensacola streets just after 3 a.m. Suarez was off-duty at the time and he told investigators that when he had trouble sleeping he would either go for walks or cruise around the city to put himself at ease.

On this occasion, he said, a cat or some other large animal darted out in front of him causing him to swerve into a parked car. He hit the vehicle with such force that his airbags deployed and a nearby dumpster was pushed into a utility pole that sheared off at its base.

Suarez, who said he wasn’t drunk at the time, considered the crash to be a minor motor vehicle accident in part because no one else was injured. He said he would have called it in at the time, but that his cell phone was dead.

Suarez spent a few minutes looking for a pay phone, but instead decided to walk home, a journey that he said would only take about 20 minutes, so that he could get money for a cab, charge his cell phone and report the accident. He said he left his driver’s license and insurance information in his vehicle.

When he finally arrived at his house he said he was so upset that he took a bottle of bourbon from the kitchen and poured himself a few drinks.

Suarez returned to the scene of the accident about 90 minutes after the crash. By that time HPD officers were already there. Suarez failed a field sobriety test and a lieutenant from the Professional Standards Office ordered him to be arrested for driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident. When Suarez was booked at HPD headquarters he had a blood alcohol level that was two times the legal limit.

“This arbitration decision reflects sloppy investigation, sloppy charging decisions and sloppy thinking (by HPD).” — Former Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan

The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office eventually dismissed the charges against Suarez and told HPD that it should have only issued him a citation rather than arrest him for drunken driving.

Still, HPD wanted to fire Suarez. According to the arbitration decision, the department did not find Suarez’s story “credible.”

Police investigators did not believe that Suarez’s cell phone battery was dead nor that it only took him 20 minutes to walk 2.1 miles from the scene of the accident to his home. They also pointed out that he had plenty of opportunities to report the accident.

Not only did he walk past nine pay phones on his way home, but he also went by HPD’s headquarters and the Chinatown substation where he used to work.

Suarez also had a history of wrongdoing. In 2010, he had been suspended for 10 days for falsifying records.

The Union Fights Back

The police union pushed back on Suarez’s behalf, throwing up a series of defenses that homed in on mistakes made by HPD’s Professional Standards Office rather than the circumstances surrounding the actual accident.

Lawyers for SHOPO admitted Suarez showed “poor judgment” but said the department did not meet the threshold necessary to fire him. Like city prosecutors, SHOPO’s attorneys challenged whether HPD had enough probable cause to arrest Suarez in the first place — much less give him a field sobriety test — because none of the responding officers ever saw him behind the wheel.

They said the PSO included erroneous information in its reports to the police chief and other top officials while making the case to terminate Suarez. For instance, HPD’s investigators wrote that Suarez “failed to render aid as mandated by law,” which gave the wrong impression that there were others involved in the accident besides him.

The arbitrator, Cundiff, agreed with many of SHOPO’s arguments, including the lack of probable cause for a DUI case and that the charge of failure to render aid was misleading.

The PSO’s portrayal gave police officials “an inaccurate first impression that stayed with the case throughout the process,” Cundiff said.

Cundiff also took note of 75 letters of support the union had gathered on Suarez’s behalf and the fact that Suarez was a first responder at Ground Zero during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.

And he considered Suarez’s own words as he pleaded with his superiors to keep his job.

“I try to learn from my mistakes, but I mean, I have to eat my words,” Suarez said, referencing his previous punishment. “I am sincerely sorry for all the stupid mistakes I’ve made through my career.”

In the end, Cundiff decided that Suarez’ actions did not warrant the “capital punishment of a career,” but that the grief, the time and the cost of the investigations and appeals demanded “serious penalty” — 15 days suspension.

Hard To Make A Firing Stick

Suarez is just one of numerous officers to be fired by HPD only to have their jobs given back by an arbitrator.

A Civil Beat analysis of HPD’s annual misconduct reports found that between 2014 and 2019 nearly one in three discharged officers were reinstated after the union intervened on their behalf.

Records show that HPD fired more than 50 officers for conduct ranging from kidnapping and sexual assault to covering up for illegal cockfighting and forcing a homeless man to lick a urinal. Of those, at least 17 had their terminations overturned even though most of the allegations involved criminal activity, including drunken driving and domestic violence.

Among those who got their jobs back were Sterling Naki and Joshua Omoso, who covered for their colleague, Anson Kimura, after they saw him accidentally shoot a bartender in the stomach while drinking.

Anson Kimura was fired after he accidentally shot a bartender in the stomach while he was drinking.

According to HPD, Naki and Omoso didn’t report the shooting when it happened and then lied to investigators. An arbitrator eventually vacated their terminations and gave them 20-day suspensions instead.

Sgt. Darren Cachola is also back on the force after HPD terminated him several years ago. Cachola was caught on surveillance video pummeling his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant in 2014. The incident sparked widespread outrage in the community and caused women lawmakers to hold a legislative hearing to address how HPD investigates domestic abuse within the ranks.

In 2015, HPD fired Cachola, but three years later an arbitrator overturned that decision.

Cachola, meanwhile, continues to be dogged by accusations of domestic violence. His ex-wife has filed a lawsuit against him, HPD and the city for covering up for him. Hawaii News Now has reported that the city is expected to settle the case for $320,000.

Stephen White is an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies the political power of police unions. He said one reason it’s so hard to fire a police officer, even one who appears to have broken the law, is because there are so many opportunities for the officers and their unions to appeal.

These provisions are often built into the collective bargaining agreements, which makes it unlikely that there will be much in the way of reform, he said.

“The language in the contracts is very much stacked toward officers and letting officers get away with things, which is not surprising,” White said. “It’s not surprising that police unions want it to be harder to punish officers.”

White, who reviewed the Suarez decision for Civil Beat, pointed out that the SHOPO’s lawyers were not arguing that Suarez did not make a mistake the night of the accident. Instead, they focused on the procedure of the investigation and the disciplinary action taken against him.

“When you can frame things in a fairly legalistic way I think that is an immensely effective strategy,” White said. “As complicated as it is there’s always going to be this legal hole.”

Still Fighting For Secrecy

Malcolm Lutu, the president of SHOPO, did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for an interview.

The union, however, has filed at least two lawsuits in state court seeking to block the public release of more arbitration decisions as well as other records that might disclose the identities of officers who have been suspended for misconduct.

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu during a SHOPO rally at the Capitol Rotunda.

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu wants to keep officer misconduct records under wraps.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The union’s attorneys are also fighting the release of Darren Cachola’s arbitration records before the Hawaii Supreme Court. Police and city officials had planned to make them public but SHOPO filed suit to block disclosure. A Circuit Court judge ordered them released and SHOPO has appealed that decision to the high court.

Arthur Ago is the director of criminal justice for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. His organization is among the groups fighting to lift the curtain on officer misconduct records in New York after elected officials there passed legislation to make disciplinary records public.

He said it’s often the unions that are standing in the way of more transparency despite an increased push for more information on racial disparities in policing and the use of deadly force.

“I can’t stress enough that transparency and accountability go hand in hand,” Ago said. “Because the problem is if there’s no transparency then that will frequently, if not always, lead to impunity.”

Union contracts and collective bargaining agreements make it difficult enough to investigate and punish police officers. He pointed to provisions in SHOPO’s own contract that state that officers suspected of misconduct cannot be interrogated for more than 30 minutes at a time. The contract also states that “any derogatory materials” in an officer’s employment file can be destroyed after four years.

One of the more problematic trends, Ago said, is that departments are in charge of investigating their own. Some municipalities have strong citizen oversight panels and the more information that’s made available to the public about officer misconduct the better.

“The bad cops need to be identified,” he said.

This story is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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