Honolulu police officer John Cambra IV was suspended for 626 days after he was caught by the FBI trying to hide evidence in an illegal cockfighting investigation involving his father.
The 20-month suspension — considered the longest in HPD history — came after the Honolulu Police Department initially tried firing Cambra in 2008.
But the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers — Hawaii’s politically powerful statewide police union — convinced a third-party arbitrator that the punishment was too severe when compared to other officers who had faced criminal charges and were allowed to keep their jobs.
Those cases included officers who had beat up their colleagues and hit their wives. At least two were convicted and served time in federal prison.
Cambra was reinstated in 2010.
His case is just one example of how past decisions in disciplinary proceedings can haunt a police department that’s trying to hold its officers accountable and crack down on serious misconduct.
Officers are guaranteed multiple opportunities to appeal disciplinary actions through their union contract. Arbitration is the final step in that process and it often plays a key role in determining whether a problematic officer can be purged from the force or reinstated with their badge and gun. Discharges can be overturned for any number of reasons, from procedural errors to shoddy investigations.
In 2020, the Honolulu City Auditor found many HPD discharges and suspensions were overturned after being compared to previous cases. According to the auditor, the situation made it hard for the department to respond to “changing community expectations of greater accountability or reverse a history of lenient discipline.”
“This has been an issue for years,” said Jonathon Grems, a former HPD deputy chief. “It’s frustrating for the department to make the decision to discipline someone and then have an arbitrator overturn that decision based on a similar but very different set of circumstances.”
He said the arbitrators themselves need to be held accountable.
“Nobody knows who the arbitrators are and these decisions are almost never released,” Grems said.
Civil Beat obtained Cambra’s arbitration file as part of a public records request to the City and County of Honolulu seeking all arbitration reports for the past 25 years — records that have only recently become public due to a change in state law.
Civil Beat is examining the records as they become available to understand what role the collective bargaining process and grievance procedures play in police reform efforts.
For more than two decades, decisions involving disciplinary suspensions were hidden from public view, the result of what had been a special exemption in Hawaii law that kept most police misconduct records confidential.
That changed in 2020 when the Hawaii Legislature eliminated the exemption. The new law, which became known as Act 47, opened up officers’ misconduct files for the first time in a generation, allowing citizens and the press the chance to scrutinize internal investigations and understand what happens when the police are punished for violating protocol or breaking the laws they’re supposed to uphold.
SHOPO filed a series of legal challenges trying to overturn Act 47, but Circuit Court Judge Dean Ochiai rejected the union’s arguments and sided with the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest that sought release of arbitration reports, including the names of the arbitrators and other detailed information.
“Nobody knows who the arbitrators are and these decisions are almost never released.” — Jonathan Grems
The arbitrator in Cambra’s case was Shelley Nobriga, who’s heard cases as an independent arbitrator since 2005.
But she’s also a longtime state employee who spent much of her career with the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. Nobriga worked as a corrections supervisor as well as an employee disciplinary hearings officer for DPS, according to her resume.
In 2015, Nobriga was promoted to be the agency’s deputy director of corrections but resigned after ethical concerns were raised about her past personal relationships with top prison officials, including then-DPS Director Nolan Espinda.
Nobriga’s 68-page decision in the Cambra case describes in detail the circumstances surrounding his initial discharge while at the same time highlighting just how hard it is to fire a police officer, even one charged with a federal crime.
Nobriga declined to comment for this article.
Attempts to reach Cambra, including through his father, were unsuccessful.
Interim Honolulu Police Chief Rade Vanic and SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu both declined to be interviewed by Civil Beat.
Cambra’s case stems from a 2005 federal investigation into illegal gambling, cockfighting and drug trafficking on Oahu that involved nearly a dozen wiretaps and more than 80 search warrants.
The investigation resulted in charges against nearly two dozen people, including an FBI secretary who used her access to sensitive law enforcement information to tip off drug dealers.
Five HPD officers, including Cambra, were also indicted. Officers Bryson Apo, Kevin Brunn and Glen Miram were accused of warning North Shore cockfighters and gamblers of impending police raids. Another officer, Barry Tong, was charged with possession of an Israeli machine gun.
The indictments were an embarrassment for both the FBI and HPD.
Charles Goodwin, who was the head of the FBI field office in Hawaii, apologized to the community for the “breach of trust,” according to news reports at the time. HPD Chief Boisse Correa was similarly dismayed, and promised he would continue to investigate wrongdoing in the department.
“This is a dark day for the Honolulu Police Department, obviously,” Correa said. “The indictment of five Honolulu police officers is extremely disheartening and disappointing.”
The charges against Cambra involved a June 21, 2005 search warrant FBI agents executed at his father’s property in Kaneohe.
Cambra lived in a house attached to his dad’s and was there when the agents arrived.
According to court records, federal investigators believed Cambra’s father, John Cambra III, was raising chickens for illegal cockfighting.
While searching his property the agents found sharp metal blades, or gaffs, that are affixed to a bird’s legs during cockfights stored in a chicken coop behind the elder Cambra’s home. But the gaffs later disappeared.
FBI and court records show the agents questioned Cambra III about the missing evidence and that he told them he had tried hiding the gaffs inside his son’s house.
Cambra IV, meanwhile, told the agents that when he found the cockfighting knives in his house he panicked and threw them out the window.
The agents, however, couldn’t find the gaffs outside where Cambra IV said he had tossed them. At that point, records show, Cambra admitted he’d actually hidden them.
He led an agent into the jungle about 20 to 30 yards away from his home and pointed to a bush where, according to the FBI, he’d tried to cover up the evidence with small branches and clumps of leaves.
When Cambra was asked to explain himself, the records show he told one of the agents that he knew what he did was wrong, but that he was simply trying to protect his father.
Cambra was indicted on federal charges then fired in February 2008, nearly two years later. By then, the criminal charges against him and his father were dismissed after their lawyers raised questions about discrepancies in the 2005 search warrant, including the fact that agents accidentally included photos of a neighbor’s house when describing their property.
SHOPO appealed the termination, which ultimately put the case before Nobriga.
In arbitration, both parties are allowed to present their case.
For HPD, city attorneys argued that what Cambra did, even though the indictment was dropped, was serious enough to warrant his dismissal. SHOPO, on the other hand, argued he should be reinstated with full back pay.
Nobriga sided with the union, but only in part.
Even though the charges were dropped against Cambra, Nobriga found the FBI’s evidence linking him to a crime was credible. She also pointed out that he was less than forthcoming during HPD’s administrative investigation.
Early on, Cambra refused to talk to internal affairs investigators and when he did finally do an interview, Nobriga said, his answers were “vague, ambiguous, and factually evasive.”
Cambra’s refusal to cooperate, she said, “clearly hindered” HPD’s investigation.
The department, she said, was particularly concerned about Cambra’s conduct and how it involved “an element of deceit.”
Nobriga highlighted the statements of Assistant Chief Bryan Wauke, who was called as a witness during one of Cambra’s disciplinary proceedings.
Wauke said that Cambra’s attempt to hide evidence “compromises the integrity of the police department.” He also expressed concern that if Cambra ever testified in a criminal case the chicken gaffs incident could undermine his credibility in the courtroom, the result of a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires police and prosecutors to disclose an officer’s dishonesty to defense attorneys.
As Wauke explained, “he would have to testify on the actions he took when he actually aided in the commission of a crime or helped prevent the apprehension of a criminal, and our job is to actually prevent crime.”
Still, Nobriga was concerned the department was not being equitable in firing Cambra.
SHOPO argued that Cambra’s punishment was too harsh when compared to his colleagues, especially those who were involved in physical assaults and domestic abuse.
“I always tell officers to tell the truth. Because if they get caught in a lie the lie is usually worse than what the department is investigating.” — Attorney Terrence Dwyer
According to Nobriga, SHOPO outlined several cases in which HPD officers had committed serious acts of violence yet were able to stay on the job.
In one case, an off-duty officer assaulted a co-worker causing “substantial injuries” to his left eye socket and nose. The officer was charged with a felony but later pleaded it down to a lesser charge with no immediate jail time. He was only suspended for 20 days.
The union spotlighted six other cases involving officers criminally charged with assault and domestic violence. In each instance, the discipline ranged from a written reprimand to a 20-day suspension.
SHOPO also pointed to two different officers who were fired after being charged with felony civil rights violations. Both went to prison yet both were reinstated.
SHOPO also called a number of witnesses in its attempt to save Cambra’s job.
One city employee discussed the case of Karl Godsey, an HPD lieutenant who had been charged with abuse of a household member yet still rose to the rank of deputy police chief.
Another, Sgt. Christopher Park, said not allowing Cambra back on the police force would be a “big mistake.”
Park said that Cambra, who joined HPD in 2002, was the only officer he had nominated for HPD’s medal of valor, which he did after Cambra entered a house fire to save a woman and her two dogs. He described Cambra as an “outstanding police officer.”
City officials pushed back on SHOPO’s arguments by highlighting other cases in which officers were fired for egregious misconduct involving elements of dishonesty and deceit.
They said the cases were better comparisons than those offered by the union.
Among them were cases involving Jack Detwiler, who was charged with kidnapping and sexual assault, and who was referred to in the arbitration proceedings as the “Ala Wai serial rapist,” and Selwyn Simmons who was fired, Nobriga said, after he was found to have groped two women, including a minor who he had tried to kiss on the neck.
The other officers named in the decision were Henry Luberts, who was discharged after he tried to illegally obtain prescription pills from a pharmacy, and Leslie Chun, who was caught on surveillance video taking a power drill and camera from the storage room at the Kailua police station.
Nobriga did not find those to be apt comparisons and instead agreed with the union.
She also took issue with HPD’s contention that Cambra’s conduct, which included misleading federal investigators, was somehow more egregious than that of the officers who hit their wives and girlfriends.
HPD’s termination of Cambra when compared to those cases, Nobriga said, was “irreconcilable.”
“This Arbitrator finds that the Employer has not applied its rules, orders, and penalties in an evenhanded and non-discriminatory manner, thus disparate treatment occurred in the Grievant’s case,” she said.
Nobriga gave Cambra his job back, but refused to give him back pay for the time he was off work from 2008 to 2010. Those 626 days, she said, would be treated as his disciplinary suspension.
She added that the decision was “not an endorsement” of Cambra’s conduct. Rather it was just a determination that the punishment was too severe and in violation of the union contract.
“This Arbitrator has weighed the effects of this award, and it is not without some uneasiness that the Grievant is returned to duty,” she wrote.
Terrence Dwyer is a lawyer and professor who teaches criminal and constitutional law at Western Connecticut State University. He is a former investigator for the New York State Police, and has represented hundreds of police officers in disciplinary cases, some of which have gone before arbitrators.
Dwyer reviewed Nobriga’s decision and questioned why she ultimately pivoted away from HPD’s concerns about Cambra’s deceit and instead focused so heavily on the domestic violence cases. He described that decision as “a bit bizarre.”
Being untruthful, he said, is grounds for termination in many police departments, and chiefs across the country have tried to implement “you lie, you die” policies to make it easier to get rid of officers who are dishonest.
The reason, Dwyer said, is because officers must be trusted, whether on the witness stand or while writing their reports.
“I always tell officers to tell the truth,” Dwyer said. “Because if they get caught in a lie the lie is usually worse than what the department is investigating.”
But while HPD played up concerns about Cambra’s credibility during his disciplinary proceedings, he was never charged with a truthfulness violation of the department’s standards of conduct.
Breaking free of a department’s disciplinary history is hard, but doable, said Lise Gelernter, a long-time arbitrator and retired University of Buffalo law professor who specialized in labor and employment disputes.
Arbitrators are allowed to use their discretion in cases where laws and public attitudes have changed, including areas such as domestic abuse, sexual harassment and workplace bullying.
Employers, too, bear the brunt of that responsibility, she said. They can make those arguments before the arbitrator, that times have changed and maybe society is willing to hold officers more accountable.
In other instances, she said, they can point to new policies or changes in administration in which employees are told that certain actions will be punished more severely than in the past.
“Sometimes a new CEO or commissioner comes in and says, ‘We’re starting from Day Zero, from now on things are going to be different,’” she said.
This story is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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