Recruits at Honolulu’s police academy who are learning the fundamentals of law enforcement are now taking open-book tests to qualify them to become police officers.

The city’s police school Ke Kula Makai Academy made the transition this past summer, Michelle Yu, an HPD spokeswoman, wrote in an email. 

“The change was made to put more emphasis on comprehension and critical thinking and less on rote and recall,” Yu said.

HPD Honolulu Police Dept officers at Re-Open Hawaii rally at the Capitol during Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. May 1, 2020
To become a Honolulu police officer, recruits need to pass a series of written exams, along with physical and functional tests. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The move is causing concern among some current and former police officers.

“How much easier can you make it?” said Dee Ann Koanui, a former Honolulu training sergeant. “You might as well hand out the badges.”

Civil Beat asked HPD six times to speak with a department official who could explain the rationale behind the decision and what impact it may have. The department declined to make anyone available.

The transition to open book comes as the department is bracing for a wave of retirements, according to several officers. The department is authorized to have 2,143 sworn positions. As of Dec. 14, it had 1,864 officers and 279 vacancies.

Koanui and other officers said they interpret the change to open book as a way to fill those vacancies. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be the first time HPD lowered standards during an officer shortage.

In 2019, Koanui got a $550,000 payout from the city after she sued HPD for changing academy test scores – turning failing tests into passing ones – and then retaliating against her when she expressed concern. In a deposition for the lawsuit, originally filed in 2009, Susan Ballard, now HPD’s chief, said that she authorized the changing of scores in 2008 when she was a police major. The department was struggling with vacancies at the time.

Randy Franklin, a retired Los Angeles Police Department sergeant who lives in Honolulu and advocates for some police reform measures, said the HPD shouldn’t lower its standards. That just invites mistakes and lawsuits that cost taxpayers, he said.

Ke Kula Makai, Honolulu Police Department, Police Academy located in Waipahu.
Recruits spend six months training and testing at Ke Kula Makai, the Honolulu police academy in Waipahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“If you can’t remember the law in the academy, how are you going to apply it when you have a badge and a gun?” he asked.

The bar to become a police officer should be high, Franklin said, because the police have much more power than the average citizen.

I’d rather get one good candidate than five bad ones,” he said. 

Keith Ross, a retired New York City police officer and police academy trainer, said the suitability of open- and closed-book tests depends on the nature of the information.

For tests on what he called basic concepts, such as how the law is constructed, what constitutes an injury to a person or property, how crimes are charged or what level of force is reasonable in various situations, recruits should be able to prove their knowledge from memory, he said. 

However, he said no one can possibly memorize all the laws and policing procedures. In the real world, police sometimes have to look it up on the spot, and he said that’s actually a good thing.

“What is the exact procedure for dealing with someone who is emotionally distressed?” said Ross, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “I don’t want a police officer trying to remember that procedure. I want it by the book.” 

In general, Ross said that police academies provide a broad foundation of knowledge on which to build.

“The way you build upon that is with real-world experience,” he said.

But Koanui said that Honolulu police recruits have to learn a lot about the law, people’s rights and police procedures, and that’s all included on the academy’s tests.

Recruits must pass 12 incremental exams to graduate from the academy.

They need to study city and state laws covering everything from shoplifting to landlord-tenant issues; understand civil rights issues, including when they are allowed to search someone or enter a home with or without a warrant; and have a clear understanding of when they can arrest someone, Koanui said.

Officers responding to domestic violence need to know whether there is justification to apprehend the perpetrator.

“That could cost them a life if they don’t know whether they have enough to arrest,” Koanui said. “They don’t have time to look it up in a book. If this person is coming at me, I need to know if I have enough to handcuff him or her.” 

HPD Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard stands with colleagues before press conference at the Waikiki substation during COVID-19 pandemic.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard would not agree to an interview for this story. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s also important that police officers know how to interpret an offender’s state of mind – like whether they committed an offense intentionally or recklessly – because that impacts investigative and charging decisions, Koanui said. Even something as seemingly mundane as writing a report can make or break a case, she said.

“If you leave something out, that can blow your whole case,” she said. 

Koanui, who retired in 2018, said she doesn’t understand why the department would try to make the tests easier because very few people failed them when she worked there.

Ironically, the open-book format is resulting in higher failure rates on academy tests, according to a source within the department who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The person said recruits fail to study and then spend so much time looking up information during the test that they run out of time.

They’re allowed one retest of the 12 incremental exams. A second failure triggers expulsion. Most people who fail at first pass the second time, the source said.

Honolulu isn’t the only city to use open-book tests in its police academy.

Philadelphia’s academy made headlines last year after 10 recruits who took an open-book test admitted to cheating on it. A similar incident occurred among officers who took an open-book test in Atlanta in 2017, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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