Hawaii law enforcement agencies have sent at least 12 cases to a board tasked with reviewing police killings in the state, a Civil Beat survey of the agencies shows.
Ten of those are from the Honolulu Police Department, one is from the state Department of Public Safety while at least one more came from Big Island police.
But the board, which has not met publicly since January 2020, has only completed one case — the Big Island officer-involved shooting of a murder suspect in 2018.
The board, which has lost a couple of members recently including its chair, plans to meet Tuesday to handle administrative tasks and elect a new board chair. Also on the schedule are plans to take another look at draft guidelines for reviewing police killings and discuss board procedures.
Hawaii’s police agencies send cases to the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board when they wrap up their own internal investigations into police shootings and in-custody deaths.
The board, however, has declined to release information on the cases it has received and are pending.
Civil Beat requested a list of cases sent to the review board from each county police department as well as the state Departments of Land and Natural Resources, Public Safety and Transportation. Two police departments — Maui and Hawaii County — declined to release information on cases they have forwarded to the board.
Only the Honolulu Police Department provided a list of cases sent to the board as of last week.
There were no cases from Kauai in recent years, and the police departments on Maui and Hawaii island say they need more time to review what information can be released publicly. No cases involving state enforcement or transportation officers were sent to the board. The public safety department sent one case to the board.
Since 2017, the year the board was created, at least 26 individuals have died at the hands of law enforcement officers or while in police custody in Hawaii, according to lists compiled by Civil Beat and the national site, Mapping Police Violence, which tracks cases nationwide.
Law enforcement agencies are required to conduct criminal investigations into every case in which an officer kills someone. Once an agency finishes its investigation, the case is supposed to be sent to the review board.
The board is then supposed to determine if prosecutors should bring charges against officers or if the killing was justified. The board can also request additional investigation into the incident, but it is not allowed to independently investigate the case and can only review materials sent from the agencies.
The board’s decisions are non-binding.
HPD has so far sent 10 cases to the board for review. The first was the death of Renie Cablay, a former jail guard who threatened officers with a knife before being shot at his Waipahu condo complex in 2018.
Others that have been forwarded to the state board, according to HPD, include the deaths of Steven Hyer, Gavalynn Mahuka, Freddie Whitmore, Michael Perez, Tison Dinney, Siatuu Tauau Jr., Kyle Thomas, Dustin Spencer and Dallas Pearce.
More details on those cases and others can be found in Civil Beat’s database, “Honolulu Police Killings and In-Custody Deaths, 2010 – present.”
Between 2018 and 2020, there were at least five other cases of police killings on Oahu that the board could review and HPD officers have shot and killed two people in 2021. Michelle Yu, an HPD spokeswoman, said two of those cases from 2019, involving the deaths of Michael Kahalehoe and Dana Brown, are still under investigation by the department.
The other three cases that haven’t been sent to the board occurred in 2019. The circumstances surrounding two of those deaths, Peter Purcell and Danny Colton, have not been publicly disclosed. The third, Sherianne Leinaala Nixon, died in police custody, KHON2 reported in 2019.
Yu, the HPD spokeswoman, said those three cases weren’t sent to the board because the board never asked for them. Yu said HPD has only sent cases to the board upon request.
However, one board member says the files are supposed to be sent when the department’s investigation is done, not when the board asks for them.
Last week, an HPD official told the Honolulu Police Commission it would be forwarding the case involving Lindani Myeni, a 29-year-old man from South Africa who was shot in Nuuanu last month, to the review board once HPD’s own investigation was finished.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Safety said it sent one case to the board, but the board declined to review the case, according to Toni Schwartz, a department spokeswoman.
In 2019, a deputy sheriff fatally shot a homeless man on the grounds of the State Capitol. In the same year, an Oahu jail guard also shot and killed a man officials said was trying to escape.
However, under the board’s governing statutes, the board could only review the sheriff shooting because jail guards aren’t considered law enforcement officers.
Schwartz said DPS couldn’t confirm or deny what case was sent to the board and also couldn’t discuss why the board declined the case.
Lance Goto, a deputy attorney general and board member, said he was not aware there were cases HPD did not send to the board. He said it’s his understanding that state law requires agencies to send their cases as soon as an internal investigation has been completed. He also wasn’t sure what happened with the DPS case.
“I’m not at liberty to speak on behalf of the board, but I think it’s a good question that needs to be resolved,” he said.
He said he would ask the board to try to figure out what happened to the missing HPD cases and to clear up the confusion with the DPS cases.
The Kauai Police Department hasn’t sent any cases to the board, according to a department spokeswoman. The last fatal encounter between a suspect and Kauai police happened in August 2013, four years before the review board was created.
The Maui Police Department said in a letter to Civil Beat it needed more time to process the request for a list of cases “in order to avoid an unreasonable interference with its other statutory duties and functions.”
The Hawaii Police Department is asking county lawyers what information regarding cases sent to the board can be made public, according to Hawaii Police Lt. Scott Amaral.
Amaral cited a part of the law that created the review board that says that matters sent to the board and its proceedings are confidential. However, the same paragraph also says that the confidentiality provision does not extend to other agencies. The department is seeking clarification on what should be kept confidential and what can be released.
Goto, the deputy attorney general and board member, also said the list of cases in its possession may be covered by the confidentiality provision in the law.
Lawmakers in 2016 seemed to make clear that while information and documents in the board’s possession are confidential, that protection doesn’t extend to other agencies.
“The confidentiality protections for information submitted by a law enforcement agency to the Board for review shall not extend to records, documents, or information in the possession of another government agency,” Hawaii senators and representatives wrote in a conference committee report on a bill that first created the board.
Will Espero, the former state senator who introduced the bill creating the board, said he understands how language in the measure may have been confusing.
“But when I submitted the bill, the idea was always transparency,” Espero said. “It’s what we should always strive for, openness and transparency.”
He encouraged the Legislature to clarify those provisions dealing with what should be kept confidential and what should not. Espero also said he supports making the board permanent.
House leaders said last week that getting boards in the state to function can be difficult. Some state agencies don’t like it when lawmakers try to oversee their operations.
“It’s hard, trying to get boards to do what you envision them doing,” House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said in an interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board. “It’s not just this (board). It’s so many things. We deal with so many disappointments.”
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said it’s Gov. David Ige’s administration’s job to take action.
“We did our part,” Belatti said. “We enacted (the board) and now they have to execute.”
The board is set to come to an end in 2022 unless lawmakers take action to extend its work. Bills that would have done that this legislative session all died.
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