Honolulu Police Commissioners took a deputy chief to task on Wednesday over the police department’s decision not to release body camera footage of officers shooting and killing a 16-year-old Micronesian boy during a police pursuit.
Over two weeks have passed since the teen was killed, but the Honolulu Police Department has not stated what exactly prompted three officers to shoot him other than he and others in the vehicle he was driving had committed a series of crimes.
Body camera footage that could provide answers won’t be released because state law precludes the release of information in juvenile criminal cases, according to Deputy Chief Aaron Takasaki-Young.
Besides 16-year-old Iremamber Sykap, the teen who was driving, other juveniles were involved in the incident along with two adults.
But several commissioners questioned whether that was the right decision and challenged Takasaki-Young to explain in more detail why the video wasn’t being released.
“What we’re all trying to wrap our heads around is: What is it that prevents a redacted video being released, just simply to show what happened when the shots were fired?” Commissioner Doug Chin asked.
Takasaki-Young said Hawaii Revised Statute 571 requires the department to keep confidential any record that relates to an ongoing proceeding involving a juvenile. The video of the Sykap shooting captured images of other juveniles in the car who were arrested, and therefore, the video cannot be released at this time, Takasaki-Young said.
Chin, a former state attorney general, and Commissioner Michael Broderick, a former judge, pushed Takasaki-Young to explain the department’s reasoning, including why the department can’t release a video with faces edited out, but Takasaki-Young didn’t budge. However, he left open the possibility that HPD may release the video at a later time when the juveniles’ court cases have concluded.
The department did release body camera footage showing the April 14 shooting of Lindani Myeni, a 29-year-old father of two from South Africa. Critics have questioned the officers’ conduct, including failing to identify themselves as police until after they had already shot the man.
Takasaki-Young said that video was releasable because of Myeni’s age.
As Chin pointed out, a police department in Ohio almost immediately released body camera footage after officers shot and killed a 16-year-old girl who officials said threatened other people with a knife. But Takasaki-Young suggested the law may be different in Ohio.
Commissioners asked Takasaki-Young about the circumstances that led to the Sykap shooting, but he declined to reveal specifics, citing the ongoing investigation.
Asked whether HPD investigators have determined the officers’ rationale, Takasaki-Young said “not yet.”
“The situation they were involved in rapidly turned dynamic,” he said. “What their belief was at the time was that they use the appropriate level of force, which unfortunately did result in them using their firearms.”
Ballard, who is usually present at commission meetings, was absent on Wednesday. But when she was asked about the Sykap shooting previously, she rationalized the officer’s actions by pointing to crimes her department says he committed.
HPD’s use of force policy only allows the use of deadly force when an officer reasonably believes it is necessary to defend their life or the life of another person who is “in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury.”
Takasaki-Young noted that police saw a replica gun in the car Sykap was driving but didn’t say to what extent that was a factor in officers shooting the teen. He declined to say where the replica gun was at the time of the shooting.
Both the Sykap and Myeni shootings are under investigation by HPD’s Professional Standards Office, which reviews cases for compliance with department policy. The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will also assess the cases for any violations of criminal law.
In addition, the cases should also go before the Hawaii Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, Takasaki-Young said, although that agency is basically inactive.
At Wednesday’s meeting the commission also heard from the public about the recent shootings and the commission’s search for a new chief to replace Ballard, who is retiring June 1.
Several people urged commissioners to reimagine HPD’s role and hire a new police chief who will embrace reform.
“How many lives must we lose or ruin before we do the work to redesign the system?” resident Carla Allison said in testimony by phone on Wednesday.
Speakers took issue with what they perceived to be a lack of training and also raised concerns about the way police deal with homeless people, mentally ill people and members of certain racial and ethnic groups.
One testifier, Carol Amos, said she was deeply disturbed by the body camera video showing the shooting of Myeni. Police officers did not announce themselves before they shined a flashlight in his face, and the physical struggle that ensued left three officers injured and Myeni dead.
“It took three officers to apprehend one man who was unarmed and (they) ended up killing the person,” she said. “It appears to me that there is more training that is necessary in the police academy other than shooting guns.”
HPD is at a critical juncture with Ballard’s retirement.
Her departure presents an opportunity, testifier Catherine Graham told commissioners. HPD needs to change the way it responds to people experiencing homelessness and mental illness, as well as people of color, she said.
“I suggest we find a new police chief who acknowledges that people often in crisis need another intervention than a police officer trained to shoot,” she said.
Allison encouraged commissioners to seek input from residents and experts about the changes HPD should implement and then find a chief who is willing to make it happen.
“Through collaboration, create a clear vision with our community, then seek candidates that share that vision and have the skills to bring that vision to fruition,” she said.
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