Leaders of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers came to the defense of their members on Thursday following a grand jury’s rejection of charges against three officers who shot and killed a 16-year-old in April.
Presented with evidence by Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm’s office, the grand jury chose not to indict the officers in the death of Iremamber Sykap, Alm’s office announced on Wednesday. Officers shot at the boy numerous times while he was behind the wheel of an allegedly stolen car. They struck him in the shoulders and head, Hawaii News Now reported. The department has not yet explained what prompted officers to shoot.
At a press conference on Thursday, SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu said he hopes the grand jury results vindicate police officers.
“In this case, the grand jury, for me, is actually eye-opening hopefully to the public to reinforce what kind of work we do and what kind of decisions we make and the reason why we make our decisions that we do … ,” he said.
SHOPO’s press conference was a rare public appearance for Honolulu union officials at a time when police locally and nationally are facing heavy criticism and calls for reform. The union leaders used the event to defend the police – messaging that aligns with a larger public relations effort this year – in addition to commenting on the grand jury decision.
The fact that a grand jury was empaneled at all is unusual, according to Lutu. It has never happened in his over 30-year career, he said. For decades, police investigated themselves and prosecutors reviewed the case for possible criminality, Alm’s office has said. In every case within the institutional memory of the prosecutor’s office, deaths were deemed justified without a grand jury’s input.
Alm’s office has not said whether it believes officers were justified in killing Sykap, only that it is reviewing the grand jury’s decision. Public defender Jacquie Esser said on Wednesday that the fact that prosecutors empaneled a grand jury suggests they believe a crime occurred, and they could still bring charges through a preliminary hearing.
Nicholas Schlapak, chair of SHOPO’s Honolulu chapter, said the grand jury took the totality of the circumstances into account, not the “misleading sensationalism on the part of private litigators, unnecessary political pressure or snap judgments made by individual reactions to snippet footage of a single body-worn camera that was leaked to the public for unknown reasons.
“Because of the decision that was rendered, I would ask the public as a whole to take a step back and pause and rethink its opinions of police officers everywhere. Your officers are highly trained, well-disciplined and dedicated people who are risking their lives and the welfare of their families to ensure that our communities are protected. They’re working for you, not against you. And now, more than ever, they need your support.”
The union officials’ comments on Thursday drew immediate ire from several local activists for police reform.
“SHOPO has the nerve to ask for unequivocal support for police,” tweeted HPC Task Force, a volunteer group that monitors the Honolulu Police Commission. “Where’s SHOPO’s support for the community when we push for transparency and accountability from them?”
The Sykap shooting is still under internal investigation to determine whether officers violated HPD policies. The department’s use of force policy states that deadly force should only be used to defend the officer or others who are in “immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury.” The policy, updated just days before the Sykap shooting, also states that officers may not shoot at subjects in vehicles unless the suspect threatens officers with a weapon that is not the car itself.
Lutu said he opposed discipline for the officers in the Sykap case.
“We’re never in favor of disciplinary action, especially if the officer is right in doing his job,” he said.
Officers – in Honolulu and nationwide – have been under scrutiny in the last year not just for shootings and in-custody deaths but for racial disparities in arrests and uses of force, low crime solving rates, overtime excesses, potential misuse of federal pandemic relief money and more.
Advocates are calling on the Honolulu Police Department and the Honolulu Police Commission to “reimagine policing,” achieve public safety with deescalation and to operate with transparency and accountability. Those calls for reform have grown louder as the mayor seeks to fill a vacancy on the Police Commission, which will hire the next police chief.
But Lutu said he believes most of the criticism of police comes from a small group.
“The sad part is I think the majority of the support is silent for officers, and it’s the loud minority that’s making all the noise,” he said.
Lutu said the department is understaffed but is charged with acting as counselors, social workers, referees and responders to medical and fire calls.
“We are here protecting our communities, giving our life if we have to,” he said.
Lutu said the police department’s critics are the problem, not officers.
“Nobody wants to do the job anymore,” he said. “This generation now does not want to do this type of work, especially when any decision we make on the road or decision we make in public, we are being bashed by the media, social media or keyboard warriors that want to second guess or Monday morning quarterback our decisions.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.