Hawaii’s police union filed two new lawsuits this week meant to block Kauai County and the city of Honolulu from releasing the names of officers who have been suspended for misconduct.

The legal actions are the latest effort to subvert a new law that makes officers’ disciplinary files a matter of public record in cases that result in suspensions and discharges.

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers argued that law violates officers’ privacy rights and should be declared unconstitutional in the lawsuits, which were filed Monday in Honolulu and Tuesday on Kauai.

The statewide police union has filed lawsuits to prevent the release of disciplinary files despite a new state law that makes them public.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The complaints — the latest salvo in a decades-long attempt by SHOPO to keep officer misconduct hidden from public view — were apparently in response to notifications that the local police chiefs intended to release more officers’ disciplinary records.

Boisse Correa, who was Honolulu’s police chief from 2004 to 2009, said the change in the public records law is needed, especially given the discussions taking place nationally about police accountability.

The recent spate of scandals in Hawaii, including the conviction of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, who was charged with a series of federal crimes stemming from allegations he framed a family member, only adds to the need for more transparency.

“In this day and age with all the questions about officers and the integrity and ethics of the police department there need to be changes,” Correa said. “The problem is that the union, SHOPO, has always felt that its primary duty was never to the community or the department. Their primary duties have always been to the officers.”

Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, also called the lawsuits meritless.

“This is an attempt by SHOPO to delay the inevitable,” Black said.

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

In 1995, the union successfully lobbied the Legislature to carve an exemption into the state’s public records law that made an officer’s misconduct records secret unless they were fired. The exemption set police officers apart from other public employees in the state.

For example, the public had a right to know the name of a college professor who was suspended for sexual harassment, as well as the reason for the punishment.

When a police officer, on the other hand, was suspended for beating their spouse or falsifying arrest records, their name and the details of their misconduct would almost certainly remain confidential except in the rare case that criminal charges were filed, a lawsuit was mounted or there was a leak to the press.

That all changed in September when Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed House Bill 285 into law.

The legislation — which was passed in the wake of national protests over the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — eliminated the exemption for police officers and opened a window into hundreds of cases of serious misconduct that have occurred over the past two decades.

County police departments, including on Kauai and the Big Island, already have begun releasing the names of officers who have been suspended for drunken driving, assault and lying to investigators, while SHOPO presses forward with its fight in the courts.

For more than two years, the union has tried to prevent the Honolulu Police Department from releasing an arbitration decision that gave Sgt. Darren Cachola his job back after he was caught on surveillance video beating his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.

Civil Beat is a party to the litigation, which is currently before the Hawaii Supreme Court. The union recently filed new briefs in the case meant to keep Cachola’s records confidential despite the new laws requiring disclosure.

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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