The Honolulu Police Department tried to fire Ofc. Brent Sylvester in 2016 after he allegedly drove drunk, rear ended a vehicle causing injury to its occupants, fled the scene, and then refused to submit to a blood test.
An Oahu District Court dismissed a criminal case against Sylvester after the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office failed to produce the complaining witnesses.
In 2019, Ofc. Christopher Finley of Caldwell, Idaho, found himself in a similar situation when he got drunk one day and hit a parked car with his police vehicle. He ultimately pleaded guilty to striking an unattended vehicle, a misdemeanor.
Idaho has significantly more power to discipline officers and can revoke officer certifications for numerous instances, including breaches of the state’s officer code of ethics, being convicted of a crime, or being accused of any criminal conduct.
The facts in this particular case were enough for the state of Idaho to permanently strip Finley of his police powers, ensuring he can never hold a badge again.
But things worked out differently for Sylvester in Honolulu.
His punishment was reduced from termination to a one-year suspension via a union arbitration process in 2018, and by 2019 he was back on the force.
In April, he fired the three fatal shots that killed Lindani Myeni outside a Nuuanu mansion.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said the shooting was justified and will not press charges. Sylvester and another officer are named as defendants in a civil lawsuit over the shooting death.
Unlike Idaho and every other state, Hawaii does not have minimum standards for officers, a process to decertify cops, or an independent state agency to make any of that happen.
Until 2018, Hawaii didn’t even have a statewide standards board that could get the ball rolling on those initiatives. Since then, Hawaii’s Law Enforcement Standards Board has been researching minimum training and certification standards for police and state law enforcement officers in Hawaii.
It’s proven a difficult task for the members appointed to the board. They have been essentially stalled due to a lack of staff and lack of funding. They’ve asked for more funding from the Legislature for three years but haven’t yet received any additional monies.
In this ongoing series, Civil Beat is examining police practices and policies, including officer-involved shootings, police misconduct, the influence of the police union and police reform efforts.
Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck, chairman of the standards board, wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday.
Hawaii’s standards board has gotten help from its counterparts around the country and from an organization called the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, or IADLEST. Earlier this year, the group surveyed all the other states, collected standards and training rules and information on certification processes and shared that with the Hawaii board.
Hawaii’s even minimal progress on developing standards and regulations comes on the heels of high-profile police killings in Hawaii and on the mainland as more citizens are calling for greater oversight of police.
“If you look at all the police reform issues coming out today, they could be addressed by these commissions if the commissions are given the power to do it,” Mike Becar, CEO of IADLEST, said.
In 1967, a commission convened by then-President Lyndon Johnson published a 360-page report called “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.” Among the report’s recommendations for police were requirements for college degrees for all executive positions, higher pay for officers to attract better applicants, and a process to allow for lateral movement between departments.
The report also recommended that every state create a standards commission to oversee law enforcement.
“State commissions could be an effective voice in promoting greater coordination among law enforcement agencies, among agencies within the administration of justice, with community groups and other units of government,” the report said.
“Perhaps most important, State commissions could initiate the research that must continually test, challenge and evaluate professional techniques and procedures in order to keep abreast of social and technical change.”
By 1981, every state except Hawaii had a standards commission, more commonly referred to as Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST board.
Every state in IADLEST’s West Region has administrative staff that oversee training, compliance and research. Most states also have permanent funding to maintain the agencies, according to a Civil Beat review of state level policies. Those states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Six states fund their commissions out of the general treasury or a mix of those funds and other fees. Four states rely entirely on court assessments or other criminal fees to fund the agencies.
Every state, besides Hawaii, requires officers to attain certification from their state standards board, according to Becar.
In 2018, the Legislature created the Law Enforcement Standards Board, Hawaii’s version of a POST. The board includes police chiefs and the heads of state departments with sworn officers. But it's never been able to pay for a full-time staff to help in its work.
Hawaii’s board got $100,000 in general funds in 2018, but that funding has since lapsed and the Legislature hasn’t given it any new money. Gov. David Ige has tentatively agreed to hire commission staff in the future.
Becar said he sent standards and procedures from all 50 states to the board to help them develop rules for Hawaii.
IADLEST regularly updates a set of model minimum standards that pulls from best practices nationwide.
The organization advocates for autonomous agencies to oversee training and certification, funding sources outside of state general funds, thorough background checks of officers, eventually requiring bachelor’s degrees for police candidates, routine reporting of misconduct from agencies to POST commissions, and participation in a national police decertification database.
Becar says Hawaii needs to set up a commission as soon as possible. The Honolulu Police Department has been a member of IADLEST, but that’s not enough.
“There needs to be oversight from a commission that develops at least minimum standards for training and hiring of all law enforcement officers in Hawaii,” Becar said.
The Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training is an example of what Hawaii’s standards board could look like one day.
What started in the early 1970s as an agency with three workers has grown to 33 professional staff with an annual operating budget of about $4.2 million, all of which comes from court assessments and a $15 fee charged to anyone found guilty of a felony, misdemeanor or minor traffic infraction.
The POST runs a basic training academy in Meridian and certifies four other academies run out of police departments across the state. Idaho also has some of the nation’s strongest regulations when it comes to decertifying officers.
“It’s pretty extensive,” Brad Johnson, the Idaho POST’s division administrator, said. “We have a lot of latitude to investigate misconduct.”
Similar to Hawaii’s law, Idaho law requires the POST to decertify any officer convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor offense involving domestic violence or any officer who falsifies information. But Idaho’s POST council also has the authority to decertify officers who are convicted of any misdemeanor, violate the council’s ethics code, are accused of criminal conduct or consume alcohol while on duty, among other dischargeable offenses.
Idaho’s POST has an Office of Professional Responsibility staffed with a manager who oversees decertification and misconduct investigations. The agency contracts about eight to 10 retired officers to investigate misconduct cases, Johnson said.
In Idaho, police agencies are required to file a form with the POST when a police officer leaves a department. That helps to find instances of misconduct that could lead to decertification.
However, most officers are disciplined or fired by their departments before their decertification cases reach the POST council, according to Johnson.
That was the case with Finley, the officer decertified in March for drunken driving. According to minutes of the POST council’s March meeting, Finley had already left the department by the time the council took up his case.
Both Johnson and a hearing officer recommended that the council decertify Finley. His attorney pleaded with the council to allow Finley to keep his certification into retirement, saying that he “has already paid the consequences of his actions legally and has lost his 20-year law enforcement career.”
The council removed Finley’s certification by unanimous vote.
Johnson said the POST never deals with labor unions representing police. Because by the time a case reaches the POST, the officer is no longer employed. He said that’s standard across the U.S.
“Once they are gone, they don’t have that representation anymore,” Johnson said.
Most states don’t have regulations as strong as Idaho’s.
Rhode Island, New Jersey and California don’t allow their state standards boards to decertify officers. Once Hawaii’s program gets going, the standards board will be required to decertify any officer convicted of a felony.
“A lot of officers can commit a lot of misconduct that never rises to a felony,” Becar said. “The best states allow (boards) to investigate an officer for misconduct, criminal or noncriminal, falsifying police reports, planting evidence.”
Researchers from Seattle University found that, of officers decertified in 2011, 43% of revocations came from felony convictions and another 29% came from misconduct cases. In that year, police standards agencies reported decertifying a total of 1,354 officers.
Hawaii’s law also provides that officers can be decertified for “prohibited action as established by the board, by rule.”
“No state has a perfect law,” said Roger Goldman, a law professor at St. Louis University of Missouri who has advocated for decertification standards across the country.
But Goldman says the states are trending toward giving standards boards broad power to punish certain bad acts that don’t amount to crimes. Others are also beginning to implement standards for corrections officers in jails and prisons.
The Seattle researchers found that a third of decertifications in 2011 were for corrections officers. Hawaii’s law doesn’t cover jail and prison guards.
But Idaho’s does. Johnson, the POST administrator, said taking on new law enforcement disciplines has been a challenge for the agency, especially when it comes to funding.
“We’ve expanded so much, and our mission’s expanded. We’re responsible for more disciplines,” Johnson said. “You just can’t keep up.”
Goldman sees opportunity for Hawaii to clarify its rules regarding decertifying officers. He points to Florida, one of the states with the highest decertification rates, where officers can be decertified for violations of moral character.
The definition of what that constitutes is left up to the Sunshine State’s police standards board.
“It doesn’t matter so much if it’s in statute or in regulations,” Goldman said of Hawaii’s procedures. “It matters what the wording is and if it's actually enforced.”
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