The chances that an independent board tasked with reviewing police killings ever gets working again is growing slimmer even as the number of cases it’s supposed to be reviewing grows.
On April 5, Honolulu police shot and killed a 16-year-old suspect after a car chase. The case is being investigated internally by the Honolulu Police Department. At some point, it would also be one of those reviewed by the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, a panel of former prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials created by the Legislature in 2017 as a check on the police departments’ own investigations of officer-involved deaths.
But the board has not met since early 2020. Meanwhile, there are more than a dozen cases of police killings pending before the board.
On Oahu alone, officers killed six people in 2018, eight in 2019, four in 2020 and now one person in 2021.
But the board has not publicly stated what cases, if any, it is reviewing or when it might reconvene to continue its work.
When Civil Beat inquired into the status of the board last year, representatives from the panel and the Attorney General’s office, to which the board is attached, spoke in vague terms of reconvening “when it is appropriate” or promised that the board would be “starting back up soon.”
On Wednesday, Gary Yamashiroya, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said the board is expected to convene “in the near future to attend to administrative matters, such as electing a new Board Chair and determine steps going forward, such as a meeting schedule and format.”
“It is really up to the Board members to decide,” Yamashiroya said in an email.
But getting the board back together may prove difficult since the member who headed the board left and its administrator retired.
There are now three vacancies on the eight-member board, and the AG’s office is trying to fill those vacant positions, which is reserved for former prosecutors from Maui, Honolulu and Kauai, according to Yamashiroya.
Retired judge Iwalani White, the board’s former chairwoman, left the board last year.
Kevin Takata, a board member and administrator of the AG’s criminal justice division, retired last year and has since left his position on the board. Takata also handled administrative duties for the board.
Gary Yabuta, a board member and executive director of the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said not having someone like Takata to coordinate meetings may delay the board getting back together.
Yabuta declined to talk about specifics regarding communications with the AG’s office, but said that the pandemic has also made it difficult to meet publicly.
That was the same response board members gave in August, even though most other state boards have moved to virtual meetings.
“As far as me being a board member, I’m waiting for direction as to when we are going to proceed,” Yabuta said. “That’s all been dependent on the assignment of the next coordinator.”
Since it was created by the Legislature in 2017, the review board has only completed one review — the Big Island police shooting of Justin Waiki in 2018. The board determined that the police shooting was justified because Waiki, who was hiding under a blanket in the bed of pickup truck, opened fire first as officers prepared to search the truck.
The board can only review cases after an internal investigation has been completed by a law enforcement agency — police departments in the case of officer involved deaths and the AG’s office in the case of state officers.
The board is able to then review any material used in the internal investigation, and can make a recommendation on whether or not the officer involved with the killing should be prosecuted. The board can also request that an additional investigation into the incident be conducted.
However, the law does not allow the board to subpoena additional records or witnesses other than those provided by the departments.
That the board has made no progress is no surprise to Ken Lawson, who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law.
“The reason no one is taking it seriously is because no one took it seriously in the first place,” Lawson said. “They never had any power.”
The board needs teeth and the ability to conduct its own investigations, Lawson says. A better option would be a citizens review panel that independently investigates not only police killings but also instances of alleged misconduct and other complaints from citizens.
The board is required to submit a report on its activities to the Legislature prior to the 2022 session. Next year, lawmakers will also consider whether or not to keep the board around.
By law, the board will be disbanded in 2022 unless the Legislature acts.
Rep. Adrian Tam introduced a bill this year to make the board permanent, but it never got a hearing.
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