Sean Middleton was sitting in his car at a stoplight on Kalakaua Avenue on April 5 when he heard gunfire. Honolulu police officers were shooting at a stolen white Honda Accord filled with six suspects aged 14 to 22.

It was only later that Middleton learned that his 16-year-old friend, Iremamber Sykap, had been killed in the police shooting.

The night before, they had hung out at Old Stadium Park off King Street. Middleton had known Sykap since he was 4 years old and they were neighbors in Kalihi. “I just wish I could’ve saved him,” said Middleton. “I just wish it was me, that they had killed me instead.”

In the absence of more details, Sykap’s death and subsequent media coverage ignited an outpouring of grief among many in Hawaii’s Micronesian community, with some questioning why death was the consequence for his alleged crimes.

According to the Honolulu Police Department, Sykap was driving the car, which had been reported stolen from Kailua and had been linked to a series of crimes including another car theft in Kaimuki, a purse snatching in Waikiki and an armed robbery in Moiliili just 20 minutes before the shooting.

Balloons and flowers decorate a site by Kalakaua Canal where Iremamber Sykap, whose nickname was Baby, was killed in a police shooting on April 5. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2021

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told reporters hours later that it appeared the vehicle had rammed two marked police cars before driving through a chainlink fence and crashing into the Kalakaua canal. “During this time, officers fired multiple shots at the vehicle,” she said at the televised press conference.

Nearly two weeks later, many key details remain unknown, and no charges have been filed against the other occupants of the car. HPD hasn’t said where on his body Sykap was shot or how many bullets hit him.

It’s not even clear why officers opened fire. When asked about their rationale at a press conference Thursday, Ballard cited the criminal activity that allegedly involved the suspects.

“I think we explained it last time, because these folks had, 20 minutes before, had done an armed robbery with two guns, previous, noon that same day, a purse snatching, so I think that pretty much kind of answers that question,” she said.

HPD’s use of force policy states that deadly force may only be used 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.”

The department said the three officers who opened fire that day were initially placed on administrative leave but as of Thursday were back on full duty. Per department policy, their names have not been released.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard cited Sykap’s alleged criminal history in response to a question about why officers shot him. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The department hasn’t said if Sykap or the other suspects were armed. Police initially said there were no weapons in the car, then said they recovered a “replica gun” but wouldn’t elaborate on what that meant or where it was found.

The medical examiner’s autopsy report isn’t expected for three to six months.

There’s footage from more than 50 body cameras, according to Ballard, but none has been released and records requests for the use of force reports have so far gone unanswered.

HPD has already published body cam footage of another police killing that occurred nine days after Sykap’s but said that was easier to process because there was less footage and no juveniles involved.

In that case, the victim was Black, further underscoring concerns about police use of force and racial tensions in Hawaii.

Reaction to both shootings, including small protests, reflected the wide gap between Hawaii residents who see police brutality as a symptom of racial inequality and many others who defended the cops and lashed out at the suspects for their alleged crimes.

The corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Philip Street where Sykap died has been decorated with a makeshift memorial of dozens of candles, bouquets, bandanas, gifts, balloons and messages.

Sykap’s 72-year-old grandmother, who raised him, said in an interview that on the day Sykap died, she spoke with him on the phone and told him to hurry home.

“He was her strength,” said Sykap’s 22-year-old sister Kaimiola, interpreting for her grandmother who speaks Chuukese. “He was our strength.”

EMS and HPD assist with suspect along Kalakaua Avenue after 16-year-old driver was shot and killed by police.
Officials assist with a suspect after a police shooting that left 16-year-old Iremamber Sykap dead. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

To Innocenta Sound-Kikku, the death confirmed her worst fears about tensions between police officers and Pacific Islander youth in Honolulu.

Four months ago, Sound-Kikku testified at a Honolulu Police Commission meeting about police actions against her Chuukese nephews in Kalihi that she felt were unwarranted and discriminatory.

“I want to feel secure and safe when I see cops instead of worrying what they might do with my children and my people,” testified Sound-Kikku, who previously worked as a police officer in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Troubled Childhood

For the past decade, about a third of all Honolulu incidents reported annually that involve force have affected people who are Native Hawaiian or another Pacific Islander ethnicity.

Sykap was at least the second Micronesian Hawaii resident to be shot and killed by Honolulu police since 2018 when Tison Dinney was killed. The community makes up an estimated 1% of Hawaii’s population of 1.4 million.

Manoa resident Ann Hansen met Sykap when he was a toddler through church. She reached out to his family after noticing they walked more than 4 miles each way every Sunday to attend mass at the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Queen Emma Square.

“There was a sweetness about him and a generosity,” said Hansen, who became his godmother. Once, she took him and his brother Mark to Punahou Carnival. Sykap spent nearly all of his time trying to win a stuffed wolf, which he promptly gave to her.

Ann Hansen and Iremamber Sykap pose with Mickey Mouse at Aulani. Courtesy: Ann Hansen

Sykap was born on Guam, the youngest of eight siblings, and moved with his family to Honolulu when he was just a few months old. He grew up largely in Kamehameha IV housing until the family was evicted for having more than one dog, Hansen said.

She sometimes went to Sykap’s parent-teacher conferences when he was in elementary school. He lived with his mother and grandmother, but his grandmother was his primary caretaker and she spoke very little English. Hansen knew it was difficult for schools to find a Chuukese interpreter.

But Hansen says that his home life was unstable and as Sykap grew older, his struggles grew.

The night before his fifth-grade promotion, he called her crying — he wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony because he had assaulted two classmates. At age 11, he went into juvenile detention for several months. Hansen said his grandmother would take the bus to visit him.

By the time Sykap and his brother Mark were entering middle school, they both already had negative reputations, which made it hard to start over, she said.

Sykap joined KVIBE, a bike repair shop in Kalihi aimed at helping at-risk youth. Kevin Faller remembers taking the group to a restaurant one day and how Sykap couldn’t stop saying thank you.

Another time, Faller kicked Sykap out of KVIBE — Faller can’t remember exactly what prompted it, but recalls telling Sykap he had to go. The next morning, the KVIBE mural was tagged with profanity. Faller knew it was Sykap. What he didn’t expect was that the boy would show up and apologize in front of everyone.

“That wasn’t me last night,” Faller remembers Sykap saying slowly as the other kids looked on. “When I get mad … I don’t know. But I like it here.”

What Happened?

On April 5, Honolulu police said they first spotted the stolen Honda Civic at Kawaikui Beach Park. The officers chased the car westbound along Kalanianaole Highway, the H1 freeway and Kapiolani Blvd before it crashed into the canal.

Ballard said some of the occupants of the car then ran from the canal and were chased by the officers on foot. Sykap was treated for injuries at the scene and transported in critical condition but died at the hospital. His 18-year-old brother Mark was also in the car and was shot but survived.

HPD hasn’t released the names of the other juveniles ages 14, 16 and 17 who were involved but said the 22-year-old, Kealii Fernandez, had prior convictions for vehicle break-ins, theft and harassment.

Mark Sykap and Fernandez were arrested but released pending investigation. Neither has been charged.

Juvenile records are private in Hawaii but media outlets including Hawaii News Now cited anonymous police sources last week saying that Iremamber Sykap had multiple prior arrests.

Police reform advocates decried the release of confidential information as an attempt to justify the shooting.

Iremamber Sykap, 16, was killed on April 5. His older brother Jake said it’s hard to eat or sleep knowing Iremamber isn’t coming home but he’s trying to be strong for his family. Courtesy: Sykap family

“It’s so upsetting to see HPD come right out of the gate trying to smear him and then step back and say there will be months before there’s any new information,” said Joshua Wisch, who leads the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Even apart from racial disparities in police use of force, Sykap and other Pacific Islander youth statistically face huge barriers to success in Hawaii.

Pacific Islander students— excluding Native Hawaiians —are least likely to graduate from Hawaii public schools and most likely to be chronically absent, compared with any other racial or ethnic group.

Only 35% of Pacific Islander public school graduates in 2019 were college-bound, compared with 45% of Native Hawaiian, 54% of Filipino and 77% of non-Filipino Asian students.

Before the pandemic, 44% of Hawaii’s Pacific Islander community was experiencing food insecurity, the highest rate of any community. They also faced disproportionately high rates of homelessness.

During the pandemic, the Pacific Islander community has had by far the highest rates of COVID-19 — four times higher than Filipinos, the only other ethnic group consistently experiencing a disparity. Hawaii’s Chuukese community was especially hit hard.

An analysis from Hawaii Public Radio last summer found that Micronesians represented 26% of stay-at-home violation arrests early in the pandemic even though they made up 1% of the state population.

Dee Ann Koanui, a retired Honolulu police officer, said she met many kids from broken families when she was on the force. She noticed that when it came to Micronesian children in particular, while absent parents were a problem, health problems in the community also led parents to die young.

“It’s hard enough to be a teen, period, but to be a Micronesian teen is even way harder,” she said. “You can’t force them to suddenly get accepted by a community that doesn’t want to accept them.”

The day Sykap died, Hawaii Rep. Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden wrote a letter to Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi asking him to appoint a member of the Micronesian community to the Honolulu Police Commission and suggested three options.

The community has for months been inviting HPD to their meetings to learn about how to help the kids in their community. The day after Sykap was shot, they spent that time asking why the boy died, but the police representative declined to give more information while the investigation was ongoing.

Police Challenges

Alex Garcia, a retired HPD officer, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the police or their motivations.

“We don’t want to shoot anybody. That’s the last thing we want to do,” said Garcia, who spent over 30 years in the department and retired in 2019. He said the delay in releasing information is important to get things right.

“You really have to do a thorough investigation to know exactly what happened,” he said.

He believes that racial disparities in policing reflect the demographics of communities where officers respond to calls and noted that the department itself is diverse.

Post-It notes decorate a utility pole on Kalakaua Ave. near where Iremamber Sykap died. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2021

But Josie Howard, who leads the service organization We Are Oceania, said she can’t help but wonder whether the fact that Sykap was Chuukese played into his death.

She has long been concerned about tensions between her community and law enforcement, recalling a time when she observed Honolulu police officers, who were responding to a school fight, repeatedly call a Chuukese teenager a monkey.

“I feel like our community has been swimming against currents,” she said.

Discrimination against Micronesians is a documented problem in Hawaii. One 2018 University of Hawaii survey found a fourth of Micronesians reported experiencing discrimination at work.

Since 2017, Howard has organized an annual Micronesian Youth Summit on the University of Hawaii campus to help middle schoolers and high schoolers see their potential. Sound-Kikku also organizes annual softball, basketball and volleyball tournaments for Micronesian kids and a theater production about their experiences. The Marshallese community holds an annual Marshallese Education Day to honor student accomplishments.

Both Howard and Sound-Kikku emphasized they don’t condone stealing or other crimes and that they see these behaviors as partial consequence of the community’s alienation in Hawaii.

“It’s sad that they’re disconnected from their culture and yet they’re not accepted into the culture they’re born into,” Sound-Kikku said of Sykap’s generation. “(People in Hawaii) see them as the ethnicity of their parents but they don’t look at them as, this is our citizen.”

Compounding the trauma of Sykap’s death for his family was the backlash on social media. After one of Sykap’s brothers told a local TV station that Iremamber was doing what he needed to do to survive, many social media comments mocked that response and cheered the boy’s death as a consequence for his alleged crimes.

Austin Haleyalpiy, who works at KVIBE, said the social media comments about Sykap were so hateful that he had to stop reading them. He and his fellow staffers at the bike shop are talking about making a mural to honor Sykap.

That’s what they did when another Chuukese 16-year-old named Starsky Willy was killed by gun violence in Kalihi in 2019.

Haleyalpiy isn’t sure.

“How many paintings are we going to hang up in KVIBE of our youth being shot?” he wondered.

Christina Jedra contributed to this story.

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