Maui voters may be asked to beef up police oversight in the 2022 election with ballot proposals that seek to create a more independent board overseeing the Maui Police Department, give more power to that board to discipline officers, and provide better access to police records.

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Those are just some of the proposals put forward by several Maui residents and a former Honolulu police commissioner to the Maui Charter Commission, which reviews the charter once a decade and finalizes any proposed amendments.

Meanwhile, the Maui Police Commission is taking another look at what it can do better to oversee the MPD at a time that citizens nationally are calling for greater police accountability. The commission is also trying to get a grasp on what the proposals for a new oversight panel might entail.

“I thought that’s what we are, but maybe it’s not,” Stacey Moniz, a police commissioner, said during a meeting Tuesday. “So are there things we can easily fix rather than start a whole other commission.”

The Maui County Charter is like a constitution for the county government. The document gives the police commission some powers to review the MPD’s budget, investigate allegations of police misconduct, discipline the police chief and annually review his performance.

TMT Saddle Road Mauna Kea Access Road, Maui Police Dept in riot gear wait for the next shift replacing officers along the access road. July 17. 2019
Several Maui residents are seeking charter amendments for greater oversight of the Maui Police Department. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

However, it differs from other commissions in that it doesn’t appear to have the power to subpoena witnesses for hearings or require the police chief to follow up on misconduct investigations like the other counties do.

Loretta Sheehan, an attorney and former chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission, combed through the Maui County Charter and identified several areas where the Maui commissioners could be given more control over the department.

On Thursday, Sheehan presented those ideas to the charter commission.

“Any police commission should be as independent as possible,” Sheehan told the commissioners during a meeting Thursday.

Among other things, her proposals would specify that the commission is independent of the department, allow the commission to review department policies, require the chief to follow-up on misconduct investigations, give the commissioners the ability to overrule the chief on disciplinary actions, allow the commission to subpoena witnesses and evidence, and require department heads to comply with inquiries made by the commission.

That last point seeks to address a line in the Maui charter that says commissioners can’t “interfere with the administrative affairs of the department.”

Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan during editorial board meeting.
Former Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan proposed 13 changes to the Maui County Charter Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Asking for and giving information is not interference,” Sheehan said. “I think that’s kind of a baby step in the right direction in terms of giving the Maui Police Commission more authority.”

The commission is still early in its process, and has until July 2022 to finalize charter amendments.

Other proposals pending before the commission would have the mayor appoint the police chief and increase the minimum requirements police chief candidates must possess.

There are also several proposals to create an independent citizen oversight board in lieu of or in addition to the police commission.

As the charter commission considers those policy changes, the Maui Police Commission is also looking at what it could be doing better.

At a meeting Tuesday, the commissioners decided they would look into community oversight of police. The commissioners tapped Stacey Moniz to lead the initiative and present her findings at the commission’s July meeting.

The commission is also trying to get a better grasp of what charter amendments are being proposed.

Frank De Rego, the commission chairman, said he has been considering the commission’s limits since he joined the panel.

“When I got on to the commission I was very aware that there was change necessary and needed, but I’m not quite sure how long it’s going to take,” De Rego said, noting that those broader policy discussions still need input from the police department and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the statewide police union.

The nine Maui commissioners are all volunteer civilians. But the idea of having a board with the power to take up complaints against officers and enforce disciplinary measures has caught on in other states.

Frank De Rego, chairman of the Maui Police Commission, is among commissioners who want to take a better look at civilian oversight of police. Screenshot/2021

In November, voters in San Diego, San Jose, Portland, Philadelphia and Columbus decided that new civilian boards should oversee their respective departments.

Keisa Liu, a Maui activist and one of the residents who proposed an independent civilian oversight board for MPD, said she also has concerns over the Maui commission’s rules that require the commission secretary to be an MPD employee.

Liu hopes the proposals for more oversight of MPD open up a broader conversation about how much power the commissioners should have. In particular, Liu wants the commission to have greater power to discipline officers.

“Police are our community members, and I care about them,” Liu said. “Making someone accountable for their bad actions should never be considered a threat. It should be considered a growth opportunity. I have a 4-year-old. If I just let him do whatever he wants, you think he’ll grow up to be the upstanding citizen we need?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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