Honolulu police commissioners say they are concerned over the Honolulu Police Department’s treatment of Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians and Black people when it comes to use of force and even arrest rates.
On Wednesday, members of the commission questioned Police Chief Susan Ballard and her staff over disparities in these areas and urged the department to take action to address them.
Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders – who make up 25% of Oahu’s population, according to July 2019 U.S. Census data – were the subjects in more than a third of the incidents involving police use of force in 2019. Hawaii residents who are Black or part-Black, and represent only 4.3% of Honolulu’s population, were subject of the use of force in 7.4% of incidents.
That’s according to HPD’s annual use of force report which was published late last year but wasn’t discussed by the Police Commission until this week.
“I don’t think I can stress enough how significant that disproportionate impact is,” Commissioner Michael Broderick said Wednesday after an HPD briefing on the matter. “And I know that there are many, many people in the community who are extremely concerned about it.”
Anything beyond a “routine handcuffing” constitutes a use of force, according to HPD. The term covers a range of responses from the minor to the life-threatening, including a “light touch” or “guided escort,” the brandishing of a baton or taser or the display and discharge of a firearm.
Officers need to have a legitimate reason to use force, and the force needs to be appropriate based on the level of resistance from the suspect, according to Honolulu Police Assistant Chief Rade Vanic.
Vanic said that Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, such as Micronesians or Samoans, represent the greatest percentage of arrests.
While use of force involving those groups is out of proportion with their population, that gap narrows when the instances of force are compared to arrest data, he said.
Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders represent 38.1% of total arrests and 34.5% of use of force incidents. Black people represent 5.2% of total arrests and 7.4% of use of force incidents.
“The NHPI – or Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander – group is, for both use of force and arrests, the highest represented group,” Vanic said.
But Commissioner Doug Chin said the disparity deserves scrutiny.
“It seems to me the problem isn’t so much that the force is disproportionate. It’s that, if there is a problem, it might be that the arrests are disproportionate,” he said.
The use of force report’s findings follow a Hawaii Public Radio investigation last year that found HPD’s enforcement of stay at home rules was disproportionately felt by Micronesian, Samoan and Black people.
Ballard has defended her department against claims of racial bias and has insisted that Honolulu’s diverse police department does not have the same issues of racial prejudice that are present on the mainland.
On Monday, Commission Chair Shannon Alivado asked Ballard whether HPD has conducted outreach to the Micronesian community to pursue some kind of partnership.
Ballard said that HPD’s community affairs division has reached out to the Micronesian community “numerous times.”
“We don’t really get a whole lot of response,” she said. “I think there is that gap where there is just a lack of understanding of … how our laws work and what they need to do, because of cultural issues.”
That doesn’t ring true to Innocenta Sound-Kikku, an outreach worker at a Kalihi community health center who is from Chuuk.
Every week over the past several months, Sound-Kikku says she has met with a group of Micronesian community leaders including ministers and community advocates to discuss the pandemic response. She said HPD hasn’t reached out to any of the 19 active members of the group.
Sound-Kikku, who previously worked as a police officer in the Northern Marianas, said she understands the law and works to communicate it with her community.
“They’re willing to learn but it has to begin with a reciprocal trust between the community and the police and so far the police are not doing a good job of making us trust them,” she said. “They’re always pushing the envelope.”
Ballard said that her department is open to working with the Micronesian community in some way, which could include training for officers. But she was quick to mention the challenges that would involve.
“It’s not something that we can just bring somebody on board,” she said. “We have to take a look at the training to make sure it’s appropriate, the delivery is appropriate. And also, too, remember that any time we do training, we’re pulling people off of the road … So it’s a whole scheduling issue.”
Josie Howard, who leads the Kalihi-based Micronesian-serving organization We Are Oceania, said she believes the racial disparities in HPD’s stats reflect a combination of systemic problems affecting the community, such as poverty and drug use, as well as racial bias they experience.
She said Ballard’s comments on Wednesday showed a lack of understanding of the community.
“That’s another example of the kind of statement that underestimates our strength and ability and always sees us as a deficit,” she said. “We have so many relationships with different agencies and different government agencies and I just feel really bad that she made that statement as if there’s no one in our community that can understand the language and understand the culture.”
Chin noted that Vanic’s presentation did not include any mention of new steps HPD plans to take to address racial disparities in use of force.
“I don’t think that is going to be perceived by the public as good enough,” he said.
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