Legislature Erred In Letting Police-Involved Fatality Review Panel Expire - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Hawaii and especially Honolulu have witnessed a rash of officer-involved shootings over the years. In 2016, the Legislature established a Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board to give the public better oversight of such incidents.

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But the board will expire at the end of this month. A bill that would have amended the term lengths of board members and made the board permanent died in the penultimate week of the 2022 legislative session.

That is regrettable, as the need and the demand for reviews of such fatalities will not disappear. The sponsor of the bill said his constituents want the board to continue rather than rely on the investigations of county prosecutors and police departments when cops kill people.

“The reason why this is important to me is we see what’s been happening with the Lindani Myeni and the Iremamber Sykap cases,” said state Rep. Adrian Tam, referring to the deaths of two men killed by Honolulu Police Department officers in April 2021.

Tam’s House district covers the congested neighborhoods of Ala Moana and Waikiki, and Sykap was shot on Kalakaua Avenue — which runs through Waikiki — after a chase.

“The police say there is enough investigation, and I get that,” said Tam. “But my constituents do raise their voices on their concerns about these shootings. They are scared that they could be victims.”

Tam’s legislation, House Bill 1239, explained that it was intended to “enhance the public’s trust in law enforcement and standardize best practices” between the counties by amending provisions relating to the independent review board.

“The Legislature finds that public trust in law enforcement is critical to ensuring justice for all under the law,” the bill said. “The Legislature further finds that the difficult and often dangerous job of law enforcement is safer, easier, and more effectively executed when citizens trust those empowered to serve and protect them.”

Backers of House Bill 1239 included House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, while the Senate companion, Senate Bill 782 (which did not get heard) was authored by Sen. Stanley Chang.

HB 1239 was amended by committees in both chambers this past spring, with the House draft calling for language to put more cops on the standards board. A Senate draft removed that language and gave it “a clean date,” meaning that HB 1239 could have become law June 29, assuming Gov. David Ige approved it or let it become law without his signature.

police shooting Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board meeting.
The Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, pictured in one of its first meetings in 2019, will end this years because lawmakers failed to act on a measure that would have kept it going. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The differences between the House and Senate were set to be hashed out in conference committee in late April. But the conferees never even met.

Why that happened is not clear — conference committees are not subject to the state Sunshine Law on open meetings.

Still, it is important to note that HB 1239’s only serious opposition came from the statewide police union.

“This bill seeks to inject another bureaucratic board into the county police departments home rule and governance,” wrote Robert “Bobby” Cavaco, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, in his March 28 testimony.

Cavaco, who wrote nearly four pages, is unstinting about what he thinks of HB 1239.

“We find it highly hypocritical for the Legislature and its politicians to be beating the antipolice drum, ad nauseam, by raising the question of the public’s trust in law enforcement at a time when the public’s trust in the Legislature is, in our view, at an all-time low,” he wrote. “Local politicians are being arrested and charged with serious crimes, yet the Legislature, which supposedly has a duty to oversee and police its own members, does nothing of substance in response.”

Cavaco urged the Legislature to instead “look in the mirror before pointing fingers at our hard working and courageous officers who are out there every day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, putting their lives on the line for you and our community.”

He also said lawmakers should help HPD “fill the empty beats that is compromising our community’s safety and exposing our most vulnerable community members such as our senior citizens to become targets and victims of broad daylight assaults and robberies.”

In fact, the House of Representatives established a commission in the wake of the bribery indictments of two former lawmakers that will make recommendations on lobbying and ethics reform. And while officer vacancies are at a critical point, it is the counties that fund their respective police departments.

For Tam’s part, he said he understands the arguments coming from law enforcement against having a fatality review board. As Cavaco put it, “Mere allegations can trigger an avalanche of investigations against any officer accused of wrongdoing.”

The SHOPO president also noted that officers are already subject to “full blown criminal and administrative Internal Affairs and/or Professional Standards Office investigations by our respective police departments, even if the officer is acquitted in a court of law or the allegations are later dismissed.”

That’s in addition to investigations from the prosecutor’s office, the police commissions and the state Attorney General’s Office.

But Cavaco’s argument is weakened by the fact that those very agencies may come to a different conclusion when reviewing officer-involved shootings.

While Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm found that officers were justified in using deadly force to stop Myeni from beating one of the officers outside of a Nuuanu home, Alm sought charges against officers in the Sykap shooting.

Tam said he expected a bill that could revive the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board next session, if not from Tam then from colleagues who share his views.

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

While I favor more oversight of the HPD, was this board actually effective at holding officers accountable for the theories mistakes? For example, did Alm's decision to charge the Sykap shooters rely on this board's investigation?In lieu of another toothless board, the entire contract between the city and HPD needs redone. Pay the cops more, and in exchange, require them to carry insurance so that the city is no longer on the hook when the cops make mistakes.

CATipton · 3 months ago

My question is - How many people in Hawaii believe that if the Review Panel wasn't expired it would do any good anyways ? We have a Legislature that couldn't pick 1 ply or 2 ply toilet paper even if they had which was which on the top of it. I feel that if the qualified Panel was put together by EXPERTS it should of included a Forensics Dr/scientist - a Medical Examiner NOT familiar with any of the HPD Officers or SHOPO Officers and maybe someone who is very familiar on Law Enforcement policy and procedures and most of all familiar how a crime scene is secured as well as maybe a Retired Judge to help with the final outcome.Hawaii spent so much money on Lawsuits to families that suffered destress because of the HPD officers and it needs to stop ! Yes, a review panel might of taught HPD officers that they are NOT above the law, but only if that Review panel wasn't made up of family and friends.

unclebob60 · 3 months ago

Looking at the record of this bill, it appears that a conference committee did not meet because the Senate did not appoint conferees. This lands squarely in the lap of Senate President Kouchi.As for SHOPO, Cavaco forgets that the legislature is supposed to represent the public, which is, in fact, very concerned about what's happening in policing. It's not just a game between the union and the legislature. SHOPO's attempt to misdirect attention only further alienates the public. Trust in the police force would be greatly enhanced if the police would select a different union.Also, we have to remember that this is an election year for ALL legislators, and I'm sure that many of them, probably including Kouchi, want the endorsement of SHOPO (though as things stand, many voters may see that as a badge of dishonor.)

JusticePlease · 3 months ago

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