Honolulu police officer Chance Correa was off duty on Dec. 9, 2002, when he nodded off behind the wheel of his GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle and plowed into a Jeep Wrangler that was pulled over on the side of Fort Weaver Road.

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Correa was believed to be drunk at the time, but he fled the scene with the help of a higher-ranking officer who himself had a history of sustained misconduct and other allegations of wrongdoing.

The driver of the Jeep, meanwhile, was left behind, pinned to his steering wheel until a bystander called 911 and emergency personnel rescued him using the “jaws of life.”

The Honolulu Police Department fired Correa in 2005 after a lengthy internal affairs investigation into the incident that resulted in at least three other officers losing their jobs, including one who tried to execute a cover-up.

Correa’s termination didn’t last long. The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers appealed his discharge and a third-party arbitrator ultimately sided with the union, finding that HPD’s investigation was flawed and Correa’s punishment too harsh.

He was reinstated in 2007, his termination converted to a six-month suspension.

Now, almost 15 years later, Correa’s disciplinary past is playing a key role in a federal civil rights and excessive force lawsuit filed against the City and County of Honolulu for the shooting death of a Honolulu man, Kyle Thomas, after he was pulled over by police.

HPD Honolulu Police Department Building1. 5 may 2016.
Third party arbitrators often dictate whether the Honolulu Police Department can fire an officer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Thomas was killed by HPD officers in 2019 after he was suspected of shoplifting at a Mililani Walmart. According to the lawsuit, Correa was a principal shooter and is blamed for escalating what should have been a routine traffic stop into a fatal encounter.

The lawsuit — filed by Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz on behalf of Thomas’ mother, Debralynn Thomas — also argues that HPD and the city were negligent in allowing Correa to remain on the police force due to his past actions involving the hit-and-run.

Correa’s criminal behavior combined with the department’s refusal to take corrective action, the lawsuit says, made it “foreseeable that Officer Correa would again exercise poor judgment, panic, and seriously harm another individual.”

Seitz says the fact that the city fails repeatedly in its efforts to weed out bad cops presents a real concern for the public’s safety and could result in increasingly larger settlements.

“Our intent with these types of allegations is to establish that the city simply doesn’t care about addressing misconduct,” Seitz said in an interview with Civil Beat.

“The city is intimidated by the union and therefore has a policy of inaction, of failing and refusing to address misconduct in a timely manner,” he said. “That then encourages and leads to other incidents of misconduct because the police officers think they’re above the law, that they have immunity and can act with impunity.”

The lawsuit details numerous other instances in which HPD officers were charged or convicted of crimes, yet were able to keep their badges in part because of union protections.

He also highlighted other cases in which troublesome officers would later be accused of criminal acts, including those that resulted in physical injuries to citizens and large legal settlements.

Seitz singled out HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola, who the department has struggled to get rid of for several years.

Cachola has been dogged by allegations of domestic abuse since at least 2002, according to the lawsuit, yet HPD has done little to address his “violent episodes.”

The department fired Cachola in 2015 after video surfaced showing him pummeling his girlfriend inside a Waipahu restaurant. Similar to Correa, a third-party arbitrator overturned that decision in 2018, saying the case against Cachola was overblown and that the video that sparked so much community outrage depicted little more than a “playful sparring match.”

For his part, Cachola has continued to face accusations of domestic violence.

In 2017, his wife called 911 to report he had choked her and pushed her up against a wall. Two years later, Seitz filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the city saying that the officers who responded refused to properly investigate the case and instead tried talking her out of pursuing charges against Cachola.

That same day she filed the lawsuit, Cachola was arrested on abuse and harassment charges after he allegedly assaulted her in front of a child. Eventually a judge dismissed the case after she refused to cooperate with prosecutors. The city ultimately agreed to settle the lawsuit for $320,000.

Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor emerita of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii and former head of the American Society of Criminology, said the fact both Correa and Cachola were reinstated should be concerning to citizens.

She said it highlights just how difficult it can be to fire a police officer who’s protected by a union.

SHOPO’s collective bargaining agreement grants officers multiple appeals to disciplinary actions. In cases where no agreement is reached a third-party arbitrator is hired to settle the dispute, oftentimes with decisions that go against the wishes of a police chief trying to rid his or her department of problem officers.

The union is adept at undercutting disciplinary decisions through arbitration, whether it’s challenging internal affairs investigators’ findings, exploiting technicalities in the collective bargaining agreement that grant officers special privileges when they’re accused of wrongdoing or arguing that a department’s past leniency in prior cases should prevail over harsher punishments.

“The role of the union is unfortunately very corrosive in terms of community safety,” Chesney-Lind said. “This is not unique to Honolulu, but it certainly is present in Honolulu. The union and the structures that are union driven, such as arbitration, tend to take us away from the kind of accountability you need in an occupation where there’s the possibility of lethal outcomes with citizens.”

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu said the knocks against the union are unfair. While Lutu said he couldn’t talk specifically about Correa’s case, he said arbitration in general is a costly, last-ditch effort.

State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu.
Malcolm Lutu, president of SHOPO, says the union will sometimes urge officers not to appeal their discipline if it’s clear they were in the wrong. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Every union has a duty to fight for their employee and their membership,” Lutu said. “We don’t go forward with every case. If there is wrongdoing — and many times there is — we basically let the officer take the discipline.”

Lutu said the union will investigate each disciplinary action to see whether it’s worth taking before an arbitrator. He described the process like a courtroom proceeding, one in which both sides present their best evidence before a judge who makes the ultimate decision, one that cannot be appealed.

“It’s a crap shoot,” Lutu said. “What we explain to our members is that arbitration is not guaranteed. We lose our share, too.”

Interim Honolulu Police Chief Rade Vanic declined to be interviewed for this story. His department would not make any other officials available to discuss Correa’s case or the lawsuit.

Who’s Telling The Truth?

Correa won his job back after SHOPO successfully appealed his termination to a third-party arbitrator hired to hear the case, Cynthia S. Nakamura.

In a 25-page decision, Nakamura detailed the circumstances behind the Dec. 9, 2002, car accident that resulted in Correa’s discharge as well as the conflicting stories he and others, including HPD officers, gave during the investigation that ultimately contributed to his reinstatement.

The arbitrator faced a complicated situation. Three officers, including Correa, were fired over the way the accident and investigation were handled. Another resigned. The discharged officers appealed their terminations through the union, and two of the appeals were heard by third-party arbitrators, including Nakamura, who used different criteria to resolve the cases. Nakamura already knew the outcome of the other appeals before reaching her decision on Correa.

Among the key questions Nakamura faced was whether HPD could prove Correa was lying about being drunk the night of the accident. The allegation stemmed from statements made by another off-duty officer, Charles Rezentes, who happened upon the crash site after Correa fled.

Numerous questions have been raised about HPD’s killing of Kyle Thomas after he was accused of shoplifting. Screenshot: Hawaii News Now

According to Nakamura, Rezentes recognized Correa’s Yukon and stopped to talk to the HPD officers who were investigating the scene. Rezentes told the officers that he had been drinking with Correa earlier in the evening and that he expected Correa to report that his vehicle was stolen.

Nakamura said the officers at the scene reported that Rezentes himself appeared to be drunk when trying to concoct the cover-up.

There was little evidence to corroborate Rezentes’ story, Nakamura said.

Correa denied he was drinking with Rezentes the night of the accident, and he never filed a police report indicating that his vehicle had been stolen.

He told investigators that he had spent the day body surfing at Yokohama Beach and was giving a friend a ride home when he fell asleep and crashed into the Jeep. He was so “emotionally distraught,” he said, that he walked away without calling 911 or offering assistance to the other driver.

“Every union has a duty to fight for their employee and their membership.” — SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu

An off-duty sheriff’s deputy, who was among the first witnesses to arrive at the scene before Correa fled, told HPD investigators that he found Correa by his vehicle frantically searching for his cell phone and that when he talked to him he seemed “delirious” and “very agitated.”

The deputy, Raymond Schwartz, testified during Correa’s arbitration proceedings that he smelled alcohol on Correa’s breath the night of the accident.

But Nakamura dismissed Schwartz’s comments because he hadn’t mentioned the possibility of intoxication in his previous statements to HPD immediately following the crash.

Correa’s sergeant, Stephen Gerona, vouched for his sobriety as well.

Correa called Gerona after the accident and asked him to pick him up on the side of the road about a third of a mile away from the crash site.

According to Nakamura, Gerona told HPD investigators that when he picked up Correa he had no idea that he had been involved in a car accident or that anyone had been injured. Correa, he said, sat in the backseat and was “hysterical and unable to explain what happened.”

Honolulu Police Department Acting Chief Rade Vanic speaks to media today.
Acting HPD Chief Rade Vanic has avoided recent interviews about the department’s disciplinary procedures and the role arbitrators play. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Gerona said that based on the unusual circumstances of the call he worried Correa had been involved in “some kind of ‘domestic’ incident with his girlfriend.” He took Correa to the Pearl City police station and told investigators that he did not appear to be under the influence.

Correa, Nakamura said, was never asked to take a breathalyzer test. He left the station without giving an official statement or meeting with internal affairs investigators.

The differing stories contributed at least in part to Nakamura’s decision to reinstate Correa.

The fact that the evidence pointed to Rezentes being the instigator of the plot to report Correa’s Yukon as stolen proves that he “lacks credibility,” she said.

She did not question Gerona’s integrity in the same manner.

Nakamura pointed out there was no shortage of wrongdoing the night Correa crashed his car, and that he wasn’t the only officer involved with the incident to get fired and then rehired after SHOPO stepped in.

Correa, Rezentes and Gerona were all terminated for their role in the accident and subsequent investigations. Another officer, Jeffrey Grean, who was accused of being untruthful during the internal affairs investigation, resigned.

Rezentes and Gerona both appealed their discharges. A third-party arbitrator eventually reinstated Rezentes albeit with a multi-month suspension.

Gerona, on the other hand, negotiated a settlement agreement with HPD that reduced his discharge to a written reprimand.

The settlement erased any allegations that Gerona had been untruthful during the investigation from his record. The 110 days he was off work due to being fired, Nakamura said, was not treated as a suspension, but rather “authorized leave without pay.” She said that not long after the agreement was reached Gerona was promoted to lieutenant.

Gerona refused to speak to Civil Beat for this story. He is currently a major who also sometimes serves as an acting assistant chief of HPD’s investigative bureau.

Even though Gerona told others on the night of Correa’s accident that he didn’t think alcohol was a factor, in 2018, when he was a defendant in a retaliation and harassment lawsuit involving doctored test scores, he told a different story. Then, Gerona testified under oath during a deposition that he had in fact smelled alcohol on Correa’s breath the night of the accident and acknowledged that he himself had been disciplined in the past for other incidents involving alleged misconduct.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about the different ways internal and institutional accountability are undermined by union contracts.” — Lauren Bonds, National Police Accountability Project

But all of that came years after Nakamura overturned HPD’s decision to fire Correa based on the department’s inability to prove in a “clear and convincing” fashion that he had lied about the circumstances surrounding the accident.

She also pointed out that in a dozen cases between 1997 and 2004 in which HPD officers fled the scene of an accident, those individuals received discipline ranging from a written reprimand to a 60-day suspension.

It’s not uncommon for arbitrators to overturn disciplinary actions for disparate treatment, and at HPD numerous suspensions and discharges have been overturned on this basis alone.

Correa had an “excellent employment record” and “strong commitment to serving as a police officer” that did not warrant termination, Nakamura said. She wrote that while Correa did experience a “momentary lapse in judgment” he should be lauded for not going along with Rezentes’ plan to report his vehicle stolen.

“Doing so may have resulted in a sustainable charge of untruthfulness and further sanctions,” Nakamura said.

As one of Correa’s chiefs said during the proceedings, she added, “a police officer’s credibility defines the officer’s identity.”

The Power Of Police Unions

Correa’s reinstatement is just one example of how union appeals and arbitrators’ decisions can have lasting consequences.

Consider the case of Brent Sylvester, who is one of the HPD officers who shot and killed Lindani Myeni earlier this year during a struggle with police.

Sylvester was fired from HPD in 2016 after he was involved in an alleged drunken hit-and-run accident on the H-1 freeway. According to court records, Sylvester refused to submit to an alcohol test during the criminal investigation and his colleagues in the department didn’t press the issue. The case was eventually dismissed because prosecutors struggled to get their witnesses to cooperate.

An HPD supporter holds a large flag that reads, “Police Lives Matter’ fronting DIstrict Court.
Supporters of police officers facing charges in an officer-involved shooting demonstrated outside a Honolulu courthouse earlier this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Sylvester appealed his discharge through the union grievance process and was reinstated after a year-long suspension.

There are other instances in which officers with a history of misconduct and citizen complaints have been involved in high-profile police killings, from Derek Chauvin who was convicted of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Jason Van Dyke, who shot and killed Laquan McDonald on the streets of Chicago.

As scrutiny of policing in America has increased, so has the power and influence of police unions and the employee protections they’ve secured through collective bargaining.

Lauren Bonds, who is the legal director for the National Police Accountability Project, said union contracts and the growth of police officer bills of rights have become “hugely problematic” because it strips departments of the ability to weed out problem officers before they become an even greater liability.

Fighting back, particularly against the unions, she said can be difficult because once a protection is enshrined in a collective bargaining agreement it can be hard to get it out.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about the different ways internal and institutional accountability are undermined by union contracts,” Bonds said. “One of the ways our movement can incentivize cities and city managers to try to get more concessions in future bargaining sessions is to highlight the costs, both the human costs of there not being enough accountability and the financial costs.”

For Seitz, he said he hopes that Honolulu city leaders recognize that officer misconduct carries with it a dollar value and that if it’s not addressed it will only add to the bill.

“The City and County consistently denies any responsibility whatsoever for the acts of the police no matter how horrendous,” Seitz said. “It just seems to me that nobody is taking seriously the fact that this conduct seems to be repeating itself.”

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