An arbitration decision released late Wednesday concludes that a grainy surveillance video showing Honolulu police Sgt. Darren Cachola beating his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant in 2014 was really showing a “playful sparring match.”
Cachola was fired by then Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha in 2015 after footage of the fight was leaked to the press, sparking a firestorm of controversy in which lawmakers demanded action to address domestic violence and other misconduct within the ranks.
After a series of appeals, arbitrator James Kawashima overruled HPD’s decision and reinstated Cachola in February 2018 with full back pay, including lost overtime benefits.
For nearly three years, the public has been left in the dark as to Kawashima’s reasoning due to a series of legal challenges by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers meant to keep his decision confidential. The city and HPD initially planned to release the records but SHOPO filed a court action to stop disclosure.
Civil Beat had filed a public records request for the report, and with the help of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, intervened in the legal fight. In 2019, Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ordered the files released but SHOPO again appealed.
Civil Beat asked the high court to take the case directly and on Wednesday, the justices unanimously rejected SHOPO’s arguments and made the decision public.
“All along, no matter how you look at this case, there was no legitimate question that there was a huge public interest in what happened here,” said Brian Black, executive director for the Civil Beat Law Center. “The fact it took two and half years to get to this point is unfortunate.”
In the 27-page decision, Kawashima found that HPD failed to properly investigate Cachola and treated him unfairly when compared to other officers who had been accused of domestic abuse.
For the most part, Kawashima viewed Cachola in a glowing light despite a long trail of domestic abuse allegations, including one from 2017 that occurred in advance of his arbitration hearing and this month resulted in a $320,000 legal settlement for his ex-wife.
Kawashima wrote that Cachola had a 20-year record of “unblemished service” and took into account the many letters and comments that were submitted to him on Cachola’s behalf by his HPD colleagues who described him as a “future leader of HPD” and someone who “never got in trouble.”
“Sergeant Cachola was a hard-working police officer and an asset to the Honolulu community,” Kawashima wrote. “He exhibited excellence and compassion in his work and took pride in his role as a public servant.”
Kawashima blamed the media for providing an inaccurate portrayal of the fight that was caught on surveillance video in 2014.
He said the images were leaked to the press by the friend of a “jealous ex-husband,” and did not provide the full picture of what was truly taking place between Cachola and his girlfriend, who was a kickboxing enthusiast.
For instance, Kawashima said, surveillance video from outside the restaurant showed Cachola’s girlfriend attacking him and hitting him in the groin well before he was seen taking full-bodied swings at her inside the establishment.
Kawashima said officials at HPD admitted that the depiction of the incident was “inaccurate and lacked evidence,” and they said that if the video never went public then Cachola likely would not have been fired.
Cachola was originally investigated for domestic abuse, drunken driving and refusing to leave a liquor establishment, but HPD didn’t have the evidence to back up the charges, in part because his girlfriend had said she was uninjured and that she and Cachola were just playing around, the arbitrator found.
She offered to take a lie detector test, but HPD’s investigators never took her up on the offer, he said.
The department wanted to fire Cachola for being drunk and refusing to leave the restaurant when he was asked and for making a scene at another bar later in the evening. He was also being disciplined for bringing “shame, embarrassment, and unnecessary attention” to HPD and its police chief at the time, Louis Kealoha.
Kealoha — who retired from HPD in 2017 after being named the target of a criminal investigation — played a prominent role in the arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Cachola because it was Kealoha’s ultimate decision to fire him for causing unwanted scrutiny of his department that concerned Kawashima.
After the surveillance video was leaked to the press, Kealoha was forced to answer for Cachola’s actions as well as those of his officers who decided not to arrest him.
Kealoha, as the face of HPD, testified at legislative hearings and made himself available to reporters during press conferences.
Kealoha himself was the subject of a federal corruption investigation at the time. Questions were being raised about his stolen mailbox and whether he, his wife and several members of HPD had framed a family member for the theft. He was in the position of defending himself on two fronts.
The union wanted Kealoha to testify during Cachola’s arbitration hearing in 2017, but the city attorneys didn’t consider it a good idea given the fact he was still under federal investigation for his involvement in the frame job.
They eventually changed their mind, but struggled to get Kealoha to sit down for questioning, something Kawashima pointed out in his decision.
“There were multiple representations about Chief Kealoha’s availability and whereabouts made by the Employer,” Kawashima wrote. “As it turned out, Chief Kealoha was enjoying his forced retirement at the beach surfing and traveling to the mainland.”
Kealoha eventually showed up for the hearing but never ended up testifying. According to the decision he brought his own private defense lawyers and pleaded his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself from self-incrimination.
Kealoha never detailed the reasons for terminating Cachola or upholding his discharge after various appeals, the arbitrator said.
“SHOPO was never given the chance to question or cross-examine Chief Kealoha because he went silent at the arbitration and instead has his two private attorneys do the talking for him,” Kawashima wrote.
“Attempts by the Employer to argue that Sergeant Cachola destroyed and breached the public’s trust was undercut by Chief Kealoha’s own negative publicity.”
The Supreme Court’s release of the decision comes after attorneys for Civil Beat and the city argued against SHOPO earlier this month that Cachola’s arbitration decision was a matter of public record under the Uniform Information Practices Act.
The arguments centered on whether the public’s interest outweighed any privacy interest Cachola might have in keeping the records confidential and a new law passed by the Legislature earlier this year that made officer misconduct a matter of public record after a final suspension or termination.
The police union has launched an assault on the new law, which is now known as Act 47 after it was signed by Gov. David Ige.
In addition to its arguments in the Cachola case, SHOPO’s attorneys have filed lawsuits in each of the four counties meant to block the public and the press from gaining access to other arbitration decisions.
Last month, First Circuit Court Judge Dean Ochiai rejected SHOPO’s legal argument that HPD officers’ disciplinary records should remain confidential despite Act 47.
A separate question remains about another provision in the law related to annual misconduct reports that are required to be filed with the Legislature.
The new law requires county police departments to disclose the identity of all police officers who are suspended or fired for misconduct in those reports. The union is concerned that those disclosures would go beyond what’s stated in the public records law because officers’ identities could be revealed while their appeals to disciplinary actions are ongoing.
The concern, according to SHOPO’s attorneys, is that officers who are successful in having their discipline reduced to something less than a suspension, such as a written reprimand, would be subjected to unfair scrutiny when compared to other public employees.
Read the arbitrator’s decision here:
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.