The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has decided to prosecute just one complaint against a Honolulu police officer throughout the entirety of the pandemic. That’s a sharp drop in the acceptance rate of police misconduct cases compared to previous years.

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Since the start of 2020, the Honolulu Police Department has referred 43 criminal cases that involved a complaint against an employee to the prosecuting attorney’s office. Of those, one was accepted and four are still pending a decision, according to data from the prosecutor’s office and a year-end HPD report detailing trends in complaints.

In comparison, a total of 232 complaints against HPD employees were referred to the prosecuting attorney’s office between 2016 and 2019. More than 53% of those cases were accepted for prosecution.

“The Department of the Prosecuting Attorney evaluates cases involving law enforcement officers like any other case,” Prosecuting Attorney Steven Alm said in a statement. “Where there is evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed by a law enforcement officer, the Department will file charges.”

Honolulu Police Department Headquarters.
Prosecutions of police officers for criminal misconduct have all but stopped during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

However, HPD’s 2020 year-end report on complaints — which was published in July and released after repeated requests from Civil Beat — blames the low acceptance rate on the pandemic.

“It has been noted that there was a low amount of cases accepted by the Prosecuting Attorney’s office in 2020 due to many city and state offices being closed and services dramatically decreased caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report says.

The review showed that just 3% of criminal complaints against officers referred to the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office were accepted by the prosecutor last year, compared to 48% the previous year. A criminal complaint is a complaint made to the department alleging that an HPD employee violated the law.

So far this year, the police department has referred 13 complaints against HPD employees to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Nine have been declined and four are still pending a decision.

More than 500 complaints were made against HPD employees last year, leading to dozens of recommendations for firings and suspensions.

Of 518 complaints received by the HPD, about 57% were sustained, meaning there was enough evidence to prove that the misconduct occurred, although there were another 74 complaints still pending at the end of the year.

Of the 298 complaints that were sustained in 2020, 23 resulted in a recommendation of discharge and nearly half were for committing a criminal act. The most common criminal complaints that led to a dismissal recommendation were tampering with a government record and falsification — a complaint that also led to recommended suspensions for seven HPD employees, according to the report.

A total of 27 complaints led to recommended suspensions for HPD employees last year.

Among the complaints received by the Professional Standards Office in 2020, 124 were criminal allegations. Of those, 31% involved domestic violence.

After the office completes its investigation and determines that a law has been violated, HPD refers the case to the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney for further investigation, according to the report.

Last year, HPD handed over 30 cases to the Prosecuting Attorney — a nearly 50% drop from the 58 cases the year before and 70 cases in 2018.

In comparison, 28 of the 58 cases referred to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office were accepted in 2019 and 31 of the 70 cases referred in 2018 were accepted.

From 2016 to 2020, four types of complaints were most commonly accepted by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office: misdemeanor abuse of family or household members, harassment, tampering with a government record and theft in the fourth degree.

Overall, the number of complaints received by the HPD has been dropping over the last five years, from 961 in 2016 to 518 in 2020, a decline of 59%.

How The Complaint System Works

Both internal and external complaints are received by both the Professional Standards Office — HPD’s internal affairs office — and the Honolulu Police Commission, a panel made up of seven individuals appointed by the mayor and approved by the Honolulu City Council.

Once the complaints are received, Police Commission investigators may help members of the public, answering questions or directing them to the appropriate agency.

The PSO handles the complaints and subsequent investigations. It also conducts inspections of staff and equipment, including whether personnel are following procedure, equipment is being maintained properly, and information is being communicated effectively, although it is not directly involved with the disciplinary process once a complaint is sustained.

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Instead, the office’s primary function is to hand over all investigative material to the Administrative Review Board, which recommends punishments to the police chief. All decisions made by the chief are included in the year-end report.

One possible use of the data, the report says, is to identify the types of situations that can lead to “problematic behavior” by officers so the department can intervene. But the department’s Employee Early Recognition System “has been lacking in recent years,” the report says.

“The HPD will further develop its EERS, as there was complacency within the department regarding the program and its effectiveness,” the report says.

The department took multiple steps to reduce the number of complaints in 2020 and offered training in areas that were “identified for improvement” including family violence, implicit bias, standards of conduct and sexual harassment prevention.

In December 2020, the department began offering all sworn officers a training curriculum called Ethical Policing Is Courageous, which was first developed by the New Orleans Police Department to reduce misconduct.

The goal of the program is to provide officers with tools to help prevent overreactions or potential misconduct by fellow officers by using tactics such as passwords or codes that encourage a colleague to calm down, stop what they’re doing, or let them know that another officer is taking over. The program also teaches officers how to speak with colleagues privately about potential problems, or how to ask other officers to confront an officer engaging in problematic behavior.

Additionally, the report notes that the HPD has worked to build relationships with community domestic violence organizations, including the Domestic Violence Action Center.

“The HPD is taking a proactive approach to minimizing and addressing the amount and type of complaints it receives,” the report says. “To extend the HPD’s Mission Statement of ‘Serving and Protecting with Aloha,’ the HPD is continuously examining and evaluating its processes to ensure the level and service to the public and its employees are with aloha.”

Read the report here:

 

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