One afternoon in November 2018, Hawaii County police responded to a call that Puna resident Bert Mercado had stabbed himself. The response would lead to his death at the hands of the Hawaii Police Department.
Mercado’s life had just started looking a little brighter after a few particularly rough years.
He’d been in and out of jail and gone through no less than nine different social service programs for substance abuse and mental health treatment. He struggled to comply with court orders stemming from a domestic violence charge in 2014. At one point, his family had kicked him out and he was homeless, court records show.
But in the previous year, he had been following his medication program and taking care of his mental health. He had even saved enough money to get a moped so he could attend domestic violence intervention classes more frequently. His wife was helping him stay on track. A Big Island judge remarked how well he’d been following court mandates.
Mercado’s situation took a turn in August. His insurance was cut off, so he could no longer get his medication or participate in court-ordered mental health assessments. He had previously told a judge that he was suicidal.
On Oct. 31, he missed a court hearing. Before a judge issued a bench warrant, Mercado’s probation officer said that he had called and was not in a good state. Mercado was living in a home on Kahakai Boulevard in the Hawaiian Beaches subdivision of the Big Island’s expansive Puna region.
When police arrived at Mercado’s residence Nov. 27, he was outside and armed with a rifle. He aimed it at police, and officers fired their weapons. After about an hour, during which police evacuated nearby homes and set up a perimeter, officers entered the home to find Mercado dead.
Like Mercado, most of those who died in encounters with the police in Hawaii County had histories of substance abuse, untreated mental illnesses, or both — on an island advocates say lacks the resources to adequately deal with those problems.
And, as in most police killings on the Big Island and nationwide, it involved a gun — which some experts say often leaves police, especially in rural areas with little prospect of backup, feeling that they have little choice but to use lethal force.
In those ways, the Big Island looks like much of the U.S. But the rate of police killings on Hawaii island has spiked dramatically over the past seven years or so, pushing it far above the rate for cities or rural counties.
Hawaii County police have killed 14 individuals since 2014, according to a Civil Beat database of Hawaii police killings. Four more people have died while in police custody. Of those, three collapsed in police cell blocks while one was found unresponsive at a crime scene.
Those numbers represent a marked uptick. Prior to 2014, people only died in encounters with police on three occasions in the previous two decades — once each in 2009, 2001 and 1995.
While the total number of fatal encounters might seem small compared to larger jurisdictions like Honolulu or other U.S. cities, the rate of killings involving officers from the Hawaii Police Department is almost double the national average.
Civil Beat tried to talk to Hawaii County police officials to understand why the number of killings has increased, but the department declined, citing ongoing litigation over police killings.
No state or federal database tallies police killings. But publicly available databases that collect media reports and police reports about these killings nationwide show that Hawaii County is an outlier when it comes to shootings and in-custody deaths.
Since 2013, the annual number of people killed per million by Hawaii County police added up to 8.2. (The county’s population is far lower than 1 million, but Civil Beat calculated that rate to compare it to other jurisdictions.) That’s compared to an average of 4.2 for police departments in the 100 biggest cities in the U.S., according to Mapping Police Violence’s database of police killings.
MPV tracks fatalities involving police officers in some of the largest police departments in the country.
If the Hawaii County Police Department were included on that list, it would tie the Reno Police Department for 11th place.
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.
The rate of civilians killed by police in Hawaii County is also higher than elsewhere in the state. Since 2013, Honolulu had a rate of 3.2 per million residents, Maui had a rate of 2.8 and Kauai police only reported one fatal officer-involved shooting since 2013.
Even compared to counties of similar size in the U.S., the rate of police lethal encounters on the Big Island is still high.
Civil Beat used the website Fatal Encounters to determine the rate of police killings in 28 counties with population sizes closest to the Big Island’s. Fatal Encounters is maintained by D. Brian Burghart, a former editor of the Reno News & Review. The website tracks nearly all fatal incidents involving police dating back to 2000.
Across those counties, the average annual number of people killed per million since 2013 came out to 4.5, just above Mapping Police Violence’s big cities average. Rates for individual counties ranged from a low of 1.1 to 13 per million.
On that list, Hawaii County would rank third behind Anderson County, South Carolina (12 deaths per million) and Harrison County, Mississippi (13 deaths per million).
Most of those killed by police on the Big Island were shot to death. Cause of death was attributed to gunshot wounds in 85% of the cases. In just two cases, a Taser or physical restraint contributed to a person’s death, according to autopsy reports.
Those statistics on deadly force match police departments across the U.S. They are in contrast to deadly force on Oahu, where gunshots accounted for only 75% of deaths while restraint made up nearly a quarter of cases.
Compared to Oahu, a greater proportion of people killed by police were armed with guns or had guns in close proximity at the time of their deaths. In Hawaii County, those killed had a gun in 57% of cases. In Honolulu, only 21% of shooting victims had firearms.
Researchers have correlated the availability of handguns in a community with the likelihood that an officer may be shot and killed.
“The only way police get killed in a homicide is with a gun. Virtually no police are driven over by cars or (stabbed by) knives,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard who has studied homicides involving firearms, including those by police. “Police are rightfully scared if there are guns.”
At least five individuals possessing guns at the time they were shot by police on the Big Island should have been disqualified from owning firearms because of their criminal records, a review of court documents found.
One of them was Justin Waiki, who in 2018 shot and killed Officer Bronson Kaliloa during a traffic stop. Days later, Waiki shot and wounded another officer while hiding under a blanket in the back of an SUV stopped at a police roadblock in Kau before police shot him.
Another is Ryan Santos, who died in a shootout with police in June. Santos fired about 30 rounds at police before being killed by a single bullet fired by an officer.
Big Island officers "have dealt with extreme violence,” said Wayne De Luz, former chair of the Hawaii County Police Commission. “One thing I do know: our officers are not trigger happy. That’s not what’s going on for sure.”
As a police commissioner, De Luz said he reviewed every shooting between 2017 and 2019. In almost every instance, people killed by police drew their weapons or provoked officers first.
One was an employee at De Luz’s auto dealership named BJ Medeiros, who allegedly pointed a gun at officers during a struggle at a traffic stop before being shot.
There have also been 16 non-fatal shootings since 2013 involving Hawaii County police. In one instance, a man was armed with a rifle and was threatening to hurt himself before an officer shot him in the shoulder. In another case, an officer fired 11 rounds at a man who reportedly reached for a "long, dark object." In all other non-fatal shootings, suspects allegedly drove at officers before being shot at.
Separately, officers were shot at but did not return fire in four cases since 2013. In one of those cases, an officer was shot in the leg while approaching a home.
De Luz said that Hawaii island’s size presents a unique challenge for the force of about 430 sworn personnel. Police in remote areas can’t always immediately call for backup if faced with a dangerous situation.
“And you’re afraid. When you have half a second to make a decision and adrenaline is shooting through your body, you’re more likely to shoot the instant somebody has a gun,” Hemenway, the Harvard professor, said.
Hemenway and a team of researchers have been studying gun homicide deaths in rural areas, including shootings by police. In a recent paper, he writes that these rural deaths should get more attention to understand the circumstances surrounding them. He called for improved training in both rural and urban areas.
Nationally, rural police shootings have drawn less publicity -- and in some areas, less scrutiny and oversight -- than shootings in urban areas, the New York Times and The Marshall Project have reported.
Most of what the public knows about these Hawaii County shootings and in-custody deaths comes from police accounts. The Hawaii Police Department didn’t start using body-worn cameras until November 2020.
David Johnson, a University of Hawaii sociology professor, said that while urban police departments have not entirely stamped out problematic police shootings, they may have more resources or more progressive leadership to deal with the problem.
There’s a range of police killings, Johnson said, from those in which police had no choice but to shoot, to the illegal. Many killings on Oahu, and at least some on the Big Island, fall in between, in what he calls “lawful but awful.”
“By which I mean they are narrowly and legally speaking, legal. But avoidable and unnecessary,” Johnson said.
Of the 14 people who died in police encounters on the Big Island, nine had a history of substance abuse and at least six showed signs of mental illness, according to court records and police and media reports.
Hawaii County has the biggest shortage of psychiatrists of the state’s four counties, according to the University of Hawaii’s physician workforce assessment project. The number of psychiatrists on the Big Island meets only 46% of the expected demand, according to the report.
That’s compared to 86% on Oahu, 72% in Maui County and 71% on Kauai. Hawaii County is short on doctors in many other areas of practice, too.
While the report only accounts for psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, health care providers on Hawaii island have said that there is also a lack of mental health counselors. The state as a whole has struggled with the issue.
De Luz and others noted the difficulty some might have in accessing social service programs, too. The pandemic has made it even more difficult. Providers have reported an increase in calls for substance abuse treatment and mental health services, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported. While counseling can be done remotely, many areas of the Big Island lack reliable internet coverage.
Access to insurance poses another difficulty for people seeking mental health treatment, according to Charmaine Higa-McMillan, director of UH Hilo’s counseling psychology.
She said the lack of psychiatrists means that medical professionals often aren’t treating people when they still only require a low level of care.
“Unfortunately, what we are seeing in rural areas is, they are not being identified until it’s a crisis,” she said.
Judy Taggerty believes that better crisis training and procedures could have resulted in a different outcome for her son, Jonathan Watson, who died while being restrained by police outside his Ocean View home.
Five years after that death in April 2016, Taggerty is still searching for answers.
Watson was molested as a child and struggled in school, according to Taggerty. Court records say he was schizophrenic. Taggerty said he had been drinking heavily after moving back to Hawaii from the mainland after separating from his wife.
“He was going through a lot of issues, he’d self-medicate, alcohol, and the next thing you know he’s doing drugs,” she said in a phone interview.
On the surface, he at least appeared on the right track. Taggerty said he had been seeing doctors in Kona regularly. She saw him two weeks before his death at a family dinner at an Outback Steakhouse.
On April 25, 2016, Watson called 911 saying he had been shot and requested medical assistance. Officers arrived at Watson’s remote home expecting an active shooter situation.
Instead, they only found Watson, who shoved an officer into a boat in his driveway and continued to struggle with them. During the struggle, he told officers that he shot himself. At one point, an officer put his knee on Watson’s leg to hold him down while two other officers inspected his home. After a couple minutes, Watson became unresponsive.
A medical examiner ruled that the manner of Watson’s death should be left undetermined, but said the combined effects of alcohol, meth and the struggle with police all contributed.
While searching Watson’s home, police found ingredients for cooking meth.
Taggerty sued the county in 2018, alleging that the police department failed to properly train its officers and that Watson was asphyxiated while pinned to the ground.
She said her son needed medical attention, not police intervention.
But a police lieutenant argued in court documents that to have medical personnel enter an active shooter situation would not have been prudent and that officers needed to secure the scene first. Instead, police positioned first responders up the road.
In court declarations, officers said paramedics arrived several minutes after Watson lost consciousness and were not able to revive him.
Taggerty said she dropped the suit in December after being unable to find a medical witness to support the allegation that Watson asphyxiated while he was pinned.
Taggerty, a former police clerk, still chokes up while talking about him. She described Watson as a kind, solitary person who loved to fish and would often drive her on errands or help with housework.
“I wish I had answers,” Taggerty said. “It’s not going to bring him back, but it would be a comfort to have some answers. And I don’t think we ever will.”
Others have also sought to challenge the official police narrative of events through lawsuits, with mixed results.
Police say they shot Ronald Barawis in a McDonald’s drive-thru in 2016 because he rammed police cars. A female passenger who was wounded in the shooting sued the county, alleging that Barawis did not ram officers and that police shot without provocation.
She says in court filings that she had her hands raised when officers fired, striking her in the eye and twice in the chest. The county paid her $10,000 in fiscal year 2019, the Tribune-Herald reported.
Gene Bernhardt was also in the midst of a mental health crisis when he was shot by police in 2017, his widow alleged in a lawsuit.
Bernahrdt was shot after he pointed a crossbow at officers, who were trying to get him to move household goods out of a roadway. His wife said he was distraught after someone cut the gas line to his tractor. Bernhardt also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The widow argued that police should have called for assistance instead. In May, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson ruled in favor of the county, saying that the officers acted reasonably given the circumstances.
In August, the parents of Daniel Buckingham sued the county for wrongful death.
Police were investigating an alleged break-in at a vacant Hilo home, and Buckingham was in one of the rooms. Shortly after police opened a door in the house, officers shot Buckingham. Police say that Buckingham cut an officer's arm with a knife.
The lawsuit says police should have announced themselves first. The county has yet to respond to the Buckinghams' civil complaint.
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