A state judge has ordered the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office to release all the police body camera footage connected to the shooting death of 16-year-old Iremamber Sykap earlier this year.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in public records litigation, sued Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm’s office in May for denying the center’s public records request for the video.

Honolulu police officers Geoffrey Thom, left, Christopher Fredaluces, and Zackary Ah Nee look at body camera footage on the monitor screen in the district courtroom of Judge William M. Domingo during preliminary hearings for three Honolulu police officers in the killing of Iremamber Sykap on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Honolulu. (POOL PHOTO/Jamm Aquino/Honolulu Star-Advertiser).
Several minutes of body camera footage have already been played in court, but there are hours more. Pool photo: Jamm Aquino/Honolulu Star-Advertiser 2021

The request was made seven weeks after the teenager’s death in April. Alm’s office denied the request, citing an open investigation and stating that release could “poison the jury pool.”

In the law center’s lawsuit, Executive Director Brian Black argued that the existence of an open investigation isn’t a good enough reason to withhold government records from the public. On Thursday, Judge Jeffrey Crabtree agreed.

“The key is he says that you can’t just say ‘ongoing investigation,’” Black said. “If the prosecutor is going to follow the judge’s order, going forward in cases like this, they will need to produce the body camera footage promptly, absent some actual harm to the investigation.”

Several minutes of bodycam footage already aired in July during a preliminary hearing in which prosecutors sought to charge three officers who shot into the car Sykap was driving. But there is much more. The prosecutor’s office has over 16 hours of body camera footage from 70 different police officers present during and after the shooting, according to a declaration Alm’s office filed in court.

In his ruling, Crabtree said the prosecutor’s office failed to show how releasing the bodycam footage would “frustrate” a government function – one of the exemptions in the public records law. He wrote the office also did not demonstrate how the release of the video would taint a jury pool in a way that jury selection, jury instructions or changing the court venue could not address.

The ruling is consistent with previous opinions of the Hawaii Office of Information Practices, which adjudicates public records disputes, Black said.

Alm’s office can now either release the footage – with the faces of non-governmental employees blurred – or appeal Crabtree’s ruling. On Thursday afternoon, Alm spokesman Matthew Dvonch declined to say how the prosecutor’s office will proceed.

“We’re still reviewing the ruling so we’re not going to be able to comment at this time,” he said.

In his complaint, Black also asked the court for an order “declaring that the Prosecutor’s policy to indefinitely delay access to police body-worn camera footage related to use of force against citizens is a violation” of the public records law. Crabtree disagreed on that point and denied Black’s motion.

“This language is too vague, and would create problems with predictability and meaningful enforcement,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

Earlier this year, the Honolulu Police Department and Alm’s office received public criticism for not releasing the footage, including from the Honolulu Police Commission. Critics questioned why HPD released footage of the April shooting of Lindani Myeni in Nuuanu, which police officials defended as justified, and not the killing of Sykap.

After Black’s lawsuit, Alm proposed a compromise: that he wouldn’t release any evidence until he made a decision about whether to charge the officers involved. Crabtree’s ruling suggests that proposal may not comply with the law, stating “the fact that there is an ongoing investigation is not the beginning and end of the analysis.”

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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