Hawaii almost made it through 2022 without a civilian being shot and killed by police.

That run ended Dec. 9 when Honolulu police fired at a man who had barricaded himself in a Waikiki apartment with a 9 mm ghost gun. It had been more than 15 months since the last fatal police shooting in Hawaii, according to a database of deadly police encounters since 2010 maintained by Civil Beat.

And then there was another shooting death in the state later in December on Maui. 

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The quiet year for the Honolulu Police Department meant it fell marginally on a scale used to compare police killings across departments of comparable size, policing communities with similar populations over the past decade. HPD currently sits just below San Francisco and on a par with Minneapolis. 

The low death number is not in itself exceptional. There was a single fatality in Honolulu in 2010, according to Civil Beat data, and police killings for the entire state hovered in the single digits until they peaked in 2018 and 2019 when there were 11 and 10 deaths respectively. 

“There was a surge there for a few years, and incidents have since fallen off, but I think caution about interpreting a small amount of data is warranted,” said David Johnson, a professor of sociology at UH Manoa.

Activists and some media outlets have highlighted the 2022 national total as a grim new benchmark in police killings, but there are several reasons to be cautious about the claim. 

Databases like Mapping Police Violence, Fatal Encounters and Civil Beat’s database sprung up because official counts “used to be woefully incomplete,” Johnson said. 

Locally, overlooked statistics for Honolulu comparing police killings 45 years ago to now indicate the 2022 death toll was below a seven-year average rate for these types of incidents in the state.

The death Dec. 9 in Waikiki was one of 1,136 fatalities by police gunfire nationally in 2022, according to the Mapping Police Violence project. The national total for those shot and killed the previous year, 2021, was 1,100. Both those figures are higher if deaths by other causes are included, and are likely a 10% undercount, researchers say.

The total for 2022 will  increase when California, parts of Texas and Maryland publish their final use-of-force data according to Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and cofounder of Mapping Police Violence

Attempts at ongoing reporting on use of force by the FBI begun in 2016 continue to be thwarted by under-reporting and non-compliance by departments, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office in December 2021. The GAO also found the Justice Department failed to follow its mandate to issue regular reports between the fiscal years 2016 and 2020, further distorting the data.

Police Killing Waikiki Barricade
Surveillance video released by HPD of the suspect shot and killed by police after a barricade in Waikiki on Dec. 9. HPD/Hawaii News Now

Despite notable gaps there has been an increase in the volume of data about use-of-force incidents, including fatal shootings. Some programs only began since 2016 and have likely contributed an additional 10 to 20 cases to the totals each year, Sinyangwe said. 

“About the national pattern, there I think we can speak with more confidence that there hasn’t been a decline, and there may even have been an increase,” Johnson said.

“The numbers are the worst they’ve been since 2015 — 9% higher,” said Peter Moskos, a veteran of the Baltimore City Police and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“It’s important to note that they aren’t going down despite eight years of, I would say, excessive focus on this issue,” he said.

Moskos said post-pandemic reengagement by law enforcement meant an increase in incidents like traffic stops and arrests that have the potential to escalate.

Oahu is also seeing rates for certain kinds of violent crime ticking back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan said a range of underlying issues drove the national total, including police department attrition, early release of imprisoned people and changes to bail laws in some jurisdictions. 

“Because of Covid-19 we postponed trials, withheld actions taken, and so we have people who probably should be incarcerated who are not,” Logan said. “What you had was a superstorm that happened, and that’s what I think you saw in the ’20-21 timeframe and probably going into 2023.”

The period defined by the pandemic will always exist as a statistical road bump for the purposes of understanding law enforcement data, along with a raft of other social indicators.

“Covid is one of the hardest things to throw into a mix when you’re trying to collect any long-term data,” said Jillian Snider, adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and retired NYPD officer. Snider said that it would be fairly accurate to say “we’ve seen stable police-involved shooting levels overall.” 

Moskos said there were still a “lot of medium cities out West have rates of cop involved killings that are two to three times the national average,” including Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque.

Back To The ’70s

The narrow scope of publicly available datasets, including the one maintained by Civil Beat, masks a back story about the Honolulu Police Department.

Honolulu was once seen as a department that modeled best practice for limiting deaths by police shootings. 

A 1983 National Institute of Justice study into the use of deadly force by police officers analyzed police shootings in a number of major cities. In Honolulu the NIJ found that between 1977 and 1979 there were two police killings. Without giving details on previous years, the researchers said those incidents actually constituted a spike in the city, which they noted had a population of 860,000.

For the same period of time, the authors found Miami police shot and killed eight people even though it then had half the population of Honolulu. The authors wrote “It seems obvious to us that there may be a very great deal that can be learned about the use of deadly force by a detailed examination of events in the Hawaiian capital city.” 

Screen Shot Police Shootings Honolulu
A table from a National Institute of Justice study on shootings by police in Honolulu in the years 1977 to 1979. National Institute of Justice

Moskos came across the Honolulu data while reviewing published literature on police killings in 18 major cities, 50 years of data for understanding the ebb and flow in the number of police shootings.

Overall there has been a five-decade decline in fatal police shootings in the cities that formed a sample size of some 20 million people, “except in Honolulu,” Moskos said. 

Honolulu Police Department was an outlier, primarily because it was starting from a very low baseline, Moskos said. The 1977-79 data showed police killed an average of fewer than one person each of those years. Moskos compared that to the rate of police killings for the period 2015-2022 and found an annual average of three people shot and killed by HPD.

The two fatalities in 2022 would then fall under the past seven-year average, but over the average in the period of the late ’70s.

Moskos said the figures reflected a concerted effort to reduce police killings in the ’70s and ’80s and then “there’s incremental decline since then, that might have to do with better health care.”

Other factors to account for are changes in population, internal migration patterns and violent crime rates, Snider said.

Despite persistent violent crime in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and St. Louis “we’re seeing a significant reduction in officer-involved fatalities and shootings,” she said. 

New York, where comprehensive reporting has been detailed and available since 1970, has reduced its rate of police killings by 87%, Moskos found. Officers there once shot and killed 60 people a year.

The researchers looking at Honolulu in the late 1970s attributed the low rate to the unique cultural makeup of Honolulu. They also noted some unique qualities in department documents that emphasized that “if it’s possible to accomplish the mission through means other than use of firearm, these means should be employed.”

An official bulletin also outlined specific scenarios when officers may be called upon to decide on potentially deadly use of firearms, investigative procedures in the event of death or injury and the issues of officer liability and bystander safety.

Last year was the first full calendar year since HPD revised its use-of-force policy from 2015. The new policy, effective April 2021, emphasized use of de-escalation techniques and raised the threshold for when officers could shoot at moving vehicles or employ vascular neck restraint, among other measures.

The policy changes can be linked to a national wave of reforms after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“If these policies are followed, we will not see as many lethal encounters between police officers and citizens,” then-HPD Chief Susan Ballard said when the policies were introduced.

Moskos said de-escalation policies can be effective in cities where there are high numbers of killings by police, but that in some scenarios the longer de-escalation goes on, the greater the risk to the officers and suspect.

Logan said HPD is currently adding 40 hours of de-escalation training for officers on crisis intervention teams, over and above existing de-escalation training. That will take a couple of years to complete, he said.

The additional training may not be effective if a suspect is intent on drawing police into using lethal force, Logan said.

Snider said it was too early to assess the impact of the expansion of de-escalation and recommends waiting for another three years of national data to determine the direction fatal police encounters are heading.

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