A state panel tasked with reviewing cases of police killings and in-custody deaths indicated Tuesday it would significantly increase the number of cases it considers in the coming year.

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The Hawaii Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board has not met in more than a year and has released only one report since it was created by the Legislature in 2017.

On Tuesday, during the board’s first meeting since January 2020, the board announced that it plans to meet at least once a month and will review up to three cases at each meeting.

“We have a job to do, plain and simple,” Gary Yabuta, the new board chair, said. “It’s quite a task, but looking at the talent here and the dedication … we are definitely on the right track.”

Yabuta did not specify what cases it would be taking up first, how many cases have been referred to the board or which ones they were.

The police shootings board plans to meet monthly going forward. Pictured, top row, left to right: Daniel Jacob, deputy attorney general; Renee Sonobe-Hong, administrator of the criminal justice division; and board member Barbara Richardson. Middle row: members Bettina Ackermann, Lance Goto, Landon Murata. Bottom row: members John Tam, Chair Gary Yabuta, Katy Chen. Screenshot/2021

Civil Beat was able to identify at least a dozen cases that have already been sent to the board, although there have been at least 26 police killings or in-custody deaths since the board was formed in 2017.

The board can only review materials sent to it by law enforcement agencies, like the county police departments. It is not allowed to conduct its own, independent investigation into cases.

The review board can recommend to county prosecutors whether charges should be brought against officers. It can also find that the shooting was justified and that charges should not be pursued, or can ask that prosecutors conduct further investigation into a case.

In February 2020 the board found that the shooting of Justin Waiki by Big Island police was justified. The report included details of the police action including how officers responded when Waiki began firing at them from where he was hidden under a blanket in the bed of a truck they had pulled over.

The board also wants Hawaii’s law enforcement agencies to send cases whether the board asks for them or not. Police departments and state agencies are required by law to send the board cases once an internal criminal investigation has been completed.

However, the Honolulu Police Department says it has only sent cases upon request, and has not sent three cases of officer involved deaths in 2019.

At the meeting Tuesday, Lance Goto, a deputy attorney general and board member, said that in the past, the board has sent reminders to the agencies to send cases when the board became aware of a fatal shooting or in-custody death.

Goto recommended that the board remind the agencies that they are required to send over cases, even if the board doesn’t ask for them.

“The board itself may not be fully aware of all instances being investigated,” Goto said.

Yabuta, the board chair, agreed.

“That’s something that we need to do, because I don’t know what’s out there and I know a lot of the board members that have been there from the start don’t know either other than what’s been reported in the media,” Yabuta said. “We have to make sure we have any and all cases involving deadly force with law enforcement.”

The board also debated changes to guidelines on how it reviews officer-involved shootings. The board first began drafting those guidelines in 2019.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the members asked Goto to clean up language regarding the recommendations the board can make to county prosecutors and clarify that they review cases involving police officers.

They also decided to axe a requirement that all board members physically sign the recommendations on cases. Instead, the new guidelines would only require the chairman to sign off on the board’s final reviews. However, a majority of the board would still need to vote in favor of any recommendation the board wants to make.

There are three new members joining the board including John Tam, a former Maui deputy prosecutor; Landon Murata, a deputy attorney general; and Bettina Ackermann, a Maui medical doctor.

The former board chair, Iwalani White, left her position last year, as did Kevin Takata, a former deputy attorney general, who also retired.

The AG’s office is still seeking applicants to fill positions reserved for former prosecutors from Hawaii and Kauai counties, Renee Sonobe-Hong, administrator of the Criminal Justice Division, told the board.

The board is set to sunset next year unless it is renewed by the Legislature.

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