A bill that would make the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board a permanent state fixture cleared its final committee vote on Thursday, setting it up for a full Senate vote.

House Bill 1239, which passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous support, would set four-year term limits for members of the board, which reviews fatal police shootings and makes recommendations on whether officers should be criminally prosecuted.

If the bill is not ultimately signed into law, the nine-member board will automatically disband by July of this year.

Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed House Bill 1239 on Thursday. Senate Judiciary Commitee

“It’s always difficult to second guess police officers in that position, but I think (the board) is doing what it was designed to do, which is another neutral take on what happened,” Sen. Karl Rhoads, chair of the Judiciary Committee, told Civil Beat following Thursday’s vote.

Since its creation in 2017, the board has publicly released recommendations on a dozen police shootings — 11 on Oahu and one on Hawaii island — and none of the recommendations have been in favor of prosecution.

The panel’s most recent recommendation, which was made public earlier this month, called for further investigation into the death of Delmar Espejo, who was shot to death by a deputy sheriff at the State Capitol on Feb. 18, 2019.

It was the first time the shooting review board recommended anything other than for no charges to be filed, as it has done in the previous 11 recommendations.

“After thorough evaluation of the materials and information submitted, and discussion of the facts and circumstances of the case, the board recommends further investigation and clarification,” Gary Yabuta, chair of the board, wrote in the recommendation sent to the Department of the Attorney General.

According to the recommendation, the board wanted to take a closer look into the path of the bullet that killed Espejo and “the plausibility of the officer firing his weapon as described in his statement.”

An autopsy showed Espejo was shot in the back at close range at a downward angle. Espejo’s family has since sued the Department of Public Safety for wrongful death, alleging negligence, excessive force and assault and battery.

Litigation is still ongoing in the case and the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board did not respond to Civil Beat’s questions about the recommendation.

Previous cases reviewed by the board include the death of Lindani Myeni, a 29-year-old South African national who was killed in April 2021, although the recommendation against prosecution was posted months after Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm announced he was not pursuing charges.

As it was initially proposed, House Bill 1239 would also have allowed the board to investigate cases of alleged police misconduct in addition to fatal shootings, but that provision was removed as the bill worked its way through the Legislature.

So far, the only group that has come out to publicly oppose the measure is the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, which branded the panel “another bureaucratic board” in testimony submitted ahead of Thursday’s committee hearing.

“We have had officers in the past who were acquitted of charges or had allegations dismissed, but they were nonetheless severely disciplined and fired despite the outcome in court,” Robert Cavaco, president of the police union, wrote. “That is the existing strict scrutiny and oversight our officers are currently subjected to without this bill.”

Cavaco went on to call for a member of the police union to be placed on the board.

“Our Union and our members operate on the front lines in the battle against crime and have training, relevant experience and knowledge that others on the Board will not possess,” Cavaco wrote. “If the true intent is to make things better, having a union representative on the board will further that objective.”

As it currently exists, the board is made up of former law enforcement officials and prosecutors, as well as a doctor and business executive.

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