Honolulu Police Need A Bodycam Policy That Instills Trust - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell, Julia Steele, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Consider this: In documenting police interactions with the public, “Transparency is critical in establishing public trust.” Recordings from body cameras “enhance the department’s ability to provide evidence for investigative and prosecutorial purposes and to enhance officer evaluation and training.”

Those words come not from defense attorneys, the ACLU or criminal justice reformers but from the Honolulu Police Department.

But when it comes to adhering to that standard in real time, the results can be frustrating. The recent fatal shootings by police of suspects in Nuuanu and along Kalakaua Avenue have galvanized public attention and raised concerns about whether HPD is doing its duty.

While those cases remain under investigation, what is clear is that HPD needs a body-worn camera policy that both officers and citizens can have faith in.

Right, HPD officer Joelyn DeCaires stands w/ left colleague Sgt. Henry Roberts at a HPD press conference announcing 35 officers in downtown are using cameras on a daily basis. 13 aug 2018
HPD announced 35 officers in downtown were using cameras on a daily basis at this press conference in August 2018. Nearly three years later, the department’s policy on the cameras needs work. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

In the first shooting incident, where Lindani Myeni was killed under still murky circumstances, a judge this week ordered HPD to turn over to attorneys representing Myeni’s family unedited police body camera footage. In the second incident, resulting in the death of Iremamber Sykap, the department has refused to release video, citing laws that protect other juveniles in the car shot up by the cops.

Hawaii News Now managed to obtain video taken by an officer on the scene at the Sykap killing. HNN reported that the footage appears to contradict what HPD Chief Susan Ballard said happened when she briefed the media after the shooting.

And now comes a third shooting this week, in which an officer in plainclothes sent Dion Kitzmiller to the emergency room in critical condition, allegedly for brandishing a gun. Unfortunately, HPD does not require plainclothes officers to wear bodycams, though acting Chief Rade Vanic says it’s considering changing that policy.

That’s a needed change in policy. But HPD also needs to release the Sykap video with either redactions or digital blurring of faces to protect the identities of the underaged if that’s necessary. It’s something that members of the Honolulu Police Commission have called for.

“In those cases where the camera was turned on, it’s almost always determinative of what we decide,” Commissioner Michael Broderick, a former family court judge, said during a March meeting. “In other words, the camera gives us exactly what we needed to know.”

Tommy Waters, the chair of the Honolulu City Council, is now considering a measure to push HPD to release the Sykap video.

“We are still researching the options available, and I’m discussing the issue with our Public Safety Committee Chair to see if the matter can be agendized as an item for discussion,” he said Thursday in an email. “I continue to believe that body-worn footage is an integral component in promoting transparency and building public trust in our police department. We need to ensure that policies around body-worn footage support release in appropriate circumstances to preserve this trust.”

In a related matter, the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office arguing that the city prosecutor’s policy of delaying disclosure indefinitely until investigations into police officers are completed “is inconsistent with the presumption of access under the public records law.”

We realize HPD’s use of body-worn cameras is still evolving. The department only began deploying them in 2017. It’s encouraging that officers disciplined for violations last year represented just 3% of officers with cameras, although there could be many more violations occurring that are left undetected. The department prohibits supervisors from seeking out violations among their subordinates and the internal affairs office is limited to just 10 random checks per month.

But the penalties for not following the rules — turning on the camera when an encounter between a cop and the public occurs, as well as keeping the camera on until the encounter has concluded — are too light. A first violation may result in counseling by the division commander while the second would result in a written reprimand. Only after the third and fourth violation would serious disciplinary action occur, such as suspension or even discharge.

Keep in mind that the push for police body cameras began after a series of high-profile police shootings on the mainland in recent years, especially the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Pew Charitable Trusts reported last year that, when it comes to reducing use of force by cops, the results are mixed.

But Pew, referencing a 2019 report from George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy that studied data through 2018, also found that officers “increasingly value them as a tool for evidence collection and protection.”

“Officers and citizens both seem to believe that BWCs can protect them from each other,” the study said, adding that the cameras are both beneficial and cost-effective.

The U.S. Department of Justice says the cameras can be highly effective resources, “providing an unalterable audio and visual record of interactions that capture empirical evidence in the event of a crime, police-citizen interaction, or use-of-force incident.”

Last month, NPR reported that, among the police departments studied that used body cameras, complaints against police dropped by 17% and the use of force by police, during fatal and non-fatal encounters, fell by nearly 10%. NPR pointed to a research paper released from the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing that determined body-worn cameras are both beneficial and cost-effective.

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell, Julia Steele, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

HPD or any other police department in Hawaii will never answer to any local or state inquiry.   Maybe the FEDS can step in and shake things up with the many issues happening with HPD.

jami_maui · 2 years ago

HPD...Still refusing the transparency route 🤷🏽‍♂️😡

Scotty_Poppins · 2 years ago

We can all agree that BWC is the future of law enforcement to assist in accountability.  Even police officers believe it’s an effective tool to protect themselves from false accusations.  As such, the real issue is releasing videos to the general public so that they can continue to have confidence and trust in the police.  But how do we address the ongoing investigation without compromising the outcome?From a lay person’s perspective I want to see the video with my own eyes.  However, from a practical point of view, I don’t want to compromise the investigation nor the trial that may ensue.  What’s the answer?  Don’t know, I’ll just let the legal-beagles argue and decide one way or the other because it’s extremely important not to violate the due process provisions within our Constitution.

ddperry · 2 years ago

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