Two months ago, a state panel tasked with making recommendations to prosecutors about police killings and in-custody deaths in Hawaii said it will start reviewing more cases after taking more than a year off.

And while it seems the group of former prosecutors, police officers and judges has started putting a dent in its caseload, there’s still little information available to the public about what those cases are and what action the board has taken.

The Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board was scheduled to discuss some of those cases at a meeting Monday. But the board convened in a closed-door session for three hours and then revealed nothing publicly about what happened during the meeting.

During the public portion of the meeting, the board did finalize guidelines for how it will go about reviewing cases of those who died in police custody or were killed by law enforcement.

The board decided that it will release its recommendation once a county prosecutor declines prosecution in a case, once officers are convicted by a jury, or once a trial court dismisses any criminal charges against officers. Any recommendation must be approved by a majority of the board.

Gary Yabuta, the board chairman and executive director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Hawaii, said that state law precludes him from discussing anything that happened during the board’s closed session.

The Hawaii Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board at a meeting Monday. From left to right, starting at top left: Tina Ackermann, Barbara Takase, Barbara Richardson, Chair Gary Yabuta, Landon Murata, Katy Chen, Lance Goto and John Tam. Screenshot/2021

In Hawaii, 30 individuals have either been killed by police or died in police custody since the Legislature created the board in 2017. However, county police departments have only shared a fraction of those cases with the review board.

The board can only review evidence and reports submitted by law enforcement agencies once an internal criminal investigation is completed. The board can then recommend to county prosecutors that officers be charged in the incident, that prosecutors should decline charges, or that additional investigation is necessary to come to a conclusion.

Yabuta also declined to say how many cases the board has taken up since it got back to business in May, and when the board’s recommendations to county prosecutors might become publicly available.

So far the board has only publicly released its review of one case  — the 2018 shooting of Justin Waiki, who killed a Hawaii County police officer before being shot at a traffic stop.

The board’s agenda for its June meeting indicates that it took up three cases for review. But the agenda only lists those as cases 1, 2 and 4 with no additional information to help identify the incidents. The board completed its review of cases 1 and 2 and needed to take a vote on those on Monday, according to minutes for the June meeting.

The agenda for the Monday meeting indicates that the board was scheduled to “review case submissions” and “determine next case submissions for review.” However, the board took up both of those items during its three-hour executive session closed off from the public.

The members didn’t make any public statements about what transpired during the executive session when the board reconvened.

The law that created the board and broadly laid out its procedures states that “all proceedings and recommendations of the board shall remain confidential.”

In 2016, The state Attorney General’s Office advocated for stronger confidentiality provisions in the bill that created the board. The AG’s office at the time recommended that the board not be allowed to release any information regarding the cases until any administrative and criminal proceedings conclude.

Hawaii State Capitol.
Hawaii lawmakers will decide next year whether or not the review board should stay in place or if changes must be made to it. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The board is slated to come to an end in 2022 unless lawmakers decide that it should continue. The board must also submit a report to the Legislature later this year outlining any recommendations for changes to the law.

Rep. Adrian Tam introduced a measure last session to make the board permanent, but the bill never got a hearing. He said he still hopes to work on the issue over the interim.

“We didn’t get a chance to see what the AG’s office had to say and what the police departments had to say,” Tam said. “So it’s a matter of getting them together and see what needs to be put into (a bill).”

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