In the wake of the criminal conspiracy that landed Honolulu’s former police chief and his estranged wife behind bars, the Honolulu Police Department needs to do more to prevent misconduct in its ranks, the city auditor said in a report released on Thursday. 

In a report requested by the Honolulu City Council, the auditor said that HPD does a decent job of addressing misconduct when it happens, but needs to take steps to avoid problems in the first place. 

HPD Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard stands with colleagues before press conference at the Waikiki substation during COVID-19 pandemic.
HPD could do a better job of addressing problem behavior early, the auditor found. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

About a third of officers recommended for suspension or termination every year have complaints alleging criminal conduct, including domestic violence, sexual assault and driving under the influence.

That level of misconduct “upsets the fundamental expectation for officer personal and professional conduct to be lawful,” the audit said, but HPD fails to aggregate and analyze that information and learn from it. 

Under the status quo, some officers are engaging in the same misconduct, again and again, the audit said. 

“With better monitoring and reporting, the department would have the ability to develop insights from the information and consider measures to prevent misconduct rather than just punishing officers after-the-fact,” the audit states.

In response to the audit, HPD expressed general agreement with the report’s findings and recommendations and said it would implement changes.

Police Chief Susan Ballard said in a letter to the auditor that the department would take the auditor’s suggestions to heart and acknowledged that HPD has not been taking full advantage of the department’s data.

“Overall, the HPD appreciates the findings of the audit and sees the value in analyzing data, as we have already seen how data can paint a fuller picture of possible areas of concern,” she wrote.

Program Isn’t Working

The department’s early recognition program, which is supposed to flag problem officers, is not being used appropriately, the audit said. The department doesn’t even know how many employees were reviewed for intervention, the report said.  

“As a result, the department may not be able to discern early warning signs in troubled officers and appropriately intervene before it turns into serious performance issues or misconduct,” an audit summary states.

Complaints against officers show instances of misuse of alcohol and drugs, violent or harassing behavior toward women, and harassing or threatening behavior toward others. These cases should be taken more seriously as warning signs of even more serious misconduct, the audit states. 

For instance, in 2019, the police psychologist suggested expanding early recognition referrals to employees who were involved in “known domestic arguments,” according to the audit. But that recommendation was never implemented.  

The auditor also reviewed complaints sent to the Police Commission and HPD’s Professional Standards Office. HPD presented no evidence that it uses information from those complaints to take proactive steps toward preventing future misconduct, including illegal use of force. 

“In our view, prevention of use of force complaints should be a priority since it has been a common complaint (and) concern made to the commission for the past five years, and when sustained, results in actual harm,” the audit states. 

Between 2015 and 2019, the types of alleged offenses that most often resulted in a recommendation that an officer be fired included driving under the influence, domestic violence, sexual assault, theft, assault, federal charges, harassment, and multiple charges arising from a violent incident.

In that same period, the offenses most commonly associated with a suspension were assault, harassment, domestic violence, theft, negligent injury and traffic violations, the audit said.

Since 2017, domestic violence has been punished more often with a discharge than a suspension because the department made it a priority, the audit states. 

The audit found that HPD is willing to turn over officer-involved cases to the prosecuting attorney’s office when misconduct warrants it. That happened in 77% of criminal investigations of officers in 2019, according to the audit. That’s higher than the criminal investigation section’s overall rate of referral to prosecutors, which is 38%, the audit said. 

When an officer is suspended or fired, they have the ability to appeal that decision through the union’s grievance process. This happens in 44% of cases, the auditor found. 

Through that mechanism, officers are increasingly getting their punishments reduced or eliminated, the auditor found. 

More and more often, HPD officers are getting their discipline reduced through the union grievance process. Honolulu Auditor

In the past five years, the audit found that 22% of cases had their final discipline reduced from the recommended discipline, 11% had the type of final discipline changed and 11% had the duration of their suspensions reduced.

In 2015, only 18% of grievance cases resulted in discipline being reduced. In 2019, that happened in 41% of cases. 

“Many disciplinary actions are overturned because they are compared to previous cases, making it hard for departments to respond to changing community expectations of greater accountability or reverse a history of lenient discipline,” the audit states. “This can lead to a situation where the department can appear arbitrary and capricious in discipline when they now try to take a harder line on discipline for misconduct.”

Honolulu police officers often get their punishment reduced by binding arbitration through the union’s grievance process. Honolulu Auditor

The auditor made a number of recommendations in this area, including that HPD should analyze complaint and misconduct data to better understand trends and develop policies and supervision changes to prevent common problems. 

The audit notes that Honolulu has started using EPIC training, which stands for Ethical Police Is Courageous. The program, created in New Orleans, aims “to promote a culture of high-quality and ethical policing and teaches officers how to intervene to stop a wrongful action before it occurs,” the audit states. 

“The outcomes of this training need to be actively monitored and reported to management to assess its effectiveness in reducing officer misconduct and complaints,” the audit said.

“We are encouraged by the department’s initiatives and hope they will result in meaningful improvements for preventing and avoiding future misconduct and complaints, and better utilizing training and early intervention to keep officers productive.”

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