Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said on Thursday that his office will conduct independent investigations into two recent fatal shootings by Honolulu police officers and will approach the review process differently than his predecessors.
“This is a new administration, and we are looking at all the practices and procedures, and we are going to do things differently,” Alm said at a press conference. “I believe it is critical to have an independent but thorough, objective investigation into both of these cases and for any future police-involved shooting of civilians.”
In the past, HPD would investigate its own officers after they’d killed someone and would send their completed investigation – along with their conclusions and recommendations – to prosecutors a year or more after the incident, Alm said.
Now, police are cooperating with the prosecutor’s office to immediately provide reports and evidence, including body camera footage, Alm said.
“We at the prosecutor’s office will evaluate all of that evidence as well as any other evidence we gather as part of our independent investigation,” he said. “And that would include further interviews, that could include documents, subpoenas, any grand jury information.”
Alm said he has assigned teams of experienced prosecutors and investigators to assess the circumstances of the deaths of Iremamber Sykap, 16, and Lindani Myeni, 29.
In his remarks, Alm made clear that he wasn’t accusing HPD of failing to do a thorough and professional job in the past nor alleging that prior prosecutors made the wrong calls.
However, he said when an agency is in charge of investigating itself, there will always be “the perception” that the process is not impartial.
In a statement following the press conference, Acting HPD Chief Aaron Takasaki-Young expressed support for Alm’s vision.
Takasaki-Young is temporarily filling in for Chief Susan Ballard while she is on sick leave. The Honolulu Police Commission has not yet named an acting chief who will take over for Ballard when she retires June 1 until a permanent replacement is hired.
“The HPD shares the (Department of the Prosecuting Attorney’s) commitment to conducting thorough, fair investigations into officer-involved shootings and will continue to cooperate with DPA investigators,” he said. “We hope to have the opportunity to discuss the proposed changes with the DPA and his staff.”
As of 2018, prosecutors were banned by HPD from the scenes of officer-involved shootings, and that practice was still in effect this month. Prosecutors were not present at the scenes of the two recent shootings, Alm said.
He did not indicate on Thursday whether that would change in the future.
“We are going to be looking at all of the procedures going forward,” he said.
Prior to 2018, it was the practice for years that prosecutors were not allowed to ask questions of officers at officer-involved shootings scenes, according to Alm’s First Deputy Tom Brady.
From now on, HPD will still interview its own officers, but prosecutors will also be asking questions, according to Alm’s office.
Where those interviews will happen – at the scene or elsewhere – is unclear, and Alm declined to say whether conducting them would require officials to read officers their Miranda rights.
“If we think there need to be any follow-up interviews, interviews of people that haven’t been interviewed, that have been interviewed already, we will do that,” he said.
He declined to say whether his staff has interviewed the officers involved in the Sykap and Myeni shootings.
“That’s part of the investigation,” he said.
The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will not be releasing any of the evidence it receives from HPD to the public, including body camera footage, Alm said.
Partial footage of the Myeni shooting has already been released, but HPD has not yet responded to a Civil Beat request for the full video. And the department has withheld footage of Sykap’s killing entirely, citing a state law that protects information on juveniles from public disclosure – a justification that was strongly questioned by members of the Honolulu Police Commission.
Alm didn’t take a position on HPD’s decision not to release the footage but said his office has a duty to avoid any action that could bias potential jurors.
“We’ll always have to be cognizant of my responsibility not to improperly influence or poison any potential jury pool,” he said. “And releasing evidence like body worn camera footage or investigative reports prematurely could have just that effect.”
The office follows this policy for all cases, he said, not just those involving police violence.
In numerous other cities and states, when prosecutors decide not to charge an officer for killing someone, they release a public report outlining the facts of the case, share photos and videos, and explain the rationale for their decision.
Asked whether he will publish public reports on Honolulu’s cases, Alm didn’t commit to it but didn’t rule it out either.
When he was Hawaii’s U.S Attorney, Alm said, office policy was to never comment on the existence of investigations, and if the office decided not to charge someone, officials did not announce it.
“If we never find enough evidence, we just leave it alone, and hopefully that doesn’t sully their reputation,” he said. “There are exceptions and have been exceptions in the past when something is of such public interest that it may be appropriate to discuss it. So that is being considered.”
Even as he announced his office’s efforts to improve the review process for police shooting investigations, Alm said that “in an ideal world,” a separate agency would be doing the work of investigating and recommending charges.
The Hawaii Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board is supposed to be doing just that. The Legislature created the panel, made up of former prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials, in 2017.
However, it almost never meets and has only issued a single report. And even if it was functioning, it would only be reviewing investigative files from the police, not doing its own investigations.
Alm said what’s really needed is a separate and truly independent agency staffed by people with experience investigating homicides and who are trained in the latest investigative techniques.
“They’d be responsible for collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, sending out subpoenas, using the grand jury to do a complete and thorough investigation of any officer-involved shooting of civilians,” he said.
“But we don’t have any entity like that now. And until the day comes that we have it, we, the Honolulu prosecutors, are in the best position to do this.”