HPD is reupping and possibly expanding its body camera program to more officers.

The public will likely never know exactly what led up to Hawaii’s most recent fatal police shooting on the Big Island beyond the police version because the two officers involved weren’t wearing cameras.

The two Hawaii County officers weren’t required to because they were plainclothes vice detectives.

Across the islands, most police officers have had to use body cameras for the past five to seven years, depending on the county. Typically detectives and other plainclothes officers have not.

Despite blind spots in documentation, the cameras have provided important video evidence of run-of-the-mill crimes to high-profile cases.

And body cameras are now widely embraced by agencies initially reluctant to adopt the technology, but they’ve also increased the workload on prosecutors who have to process the footage, according to Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm.

Bodycam footage from the police shooting of Iremamber Sykap helped show how Honolulu police officers acted after they stopped the vehicle he was driving. (Screenshot)

The Honolulu Police Department leadership is planning to renew a $1.5 million contract for body cameras and considering expanding which officers need to wear and activate the cameras, Honolulu Deputy Police Chief Rade Vanic said.

“I don’t think we’re going to go less,” he said.

Currently, HPD plainclothes officers, among some others, are still not required to wear cameras.

“We realize maybe that’s not so much a concern because they have other markings that identify them as police,” Vanic said. “Is the body-worn camera really going to give them away?”

HPD wants officers to use the cameras like it’s “second nature,” he said. Recruits now train with the cameras at the academy.

The department pays just under $1.5 million each year for a software license that includes storage for the worn camera footage on the cloud.

HPD is in the procurement process now to renew the contract, which would include storage, and aims to complete it by the end of the year.

“I definitely think we should look at what other departments are doing, check out what some of the other major city chiefs are doing, not just here in the United States but around the world,” Vanic said.

Time Pressure For Prosecutors

The many hours of police bodycam footage have led prosecutors to call for extra hands for reviewing it.

Alm’s department asked for five additional paralegals in its budget request this year to address the “rapidly increasing demands” that body camera footage creates.

When people are charged with petty misdemeanors and can’t make bail, deputies have from about 6 a.m. until noon to sift through all body camera footage from the incident before the defendant goes to court in the afternoon, Alm said.

Deputy prosecutors have to review footage, sometimes from multiple officers, before sending it to defense attorneys. The more officers that responded, the more hours of footage.

The stress has contributed to staff turnover, the department wrote in its budget request.

HPD hasn’t tracked the cameras’ effect on use of force, prosecution rates, or public trust since the program started in 2018, Vanic said.

“That’s definitely something moving forward we should be taking a look at,” he said. “It’s hard to gauge public opinion and public trust. It’s hard to see an increase in that.”

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From Distrust To Adoption

When the Kauai Police Department was about to start its body camera program in 2014, becoming the first in Hawaii to do so, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers pushed back.

“They put up a lot of roadblocks,” said former KPD Chief Darryl Perry.

Those roadblocks included a grievance with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and two subsequent appeals, contending that the department’s body camera policy sidestepped bargaining to change workplace conditions, Perry said.

State circuit court didn’t buy it, he said. The case has been pending before the Intermediate Court of Appeals since November 2020.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the latest court to hear SHOPO’s complaint against the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.

Former Kauai County Police Chief Darryl Perry tussled with SHOPO over the implementation of body cameras. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2016)

In the program’s pilot stage, citizens occasionally complained about Kauai police officers, calling them overbearing and saying they used foul language, Perry said. But the officers happened to be wearing cameras.

“When we reviewed the body cameras, it was totally bogus,” Perry said.

In 2016, the department’s first full year with body cameras, seven of 11 cases with a camera involved were resolved from the video. By 2018, KPD received just four complaints, and the officers involved in three were exonerated.

“Personally I thought it was a good thing,” Perry said. “You see things objectively.”

SHOPO now seems to have come around to body cameras.

The cameras help show how restrained and trained officers are, said Robert Cavaco, the president of SHOPO said.

However, the cameras only provide a limited field of vision and do not capture the “very real physiological impacts” officers face in “literal life-or-death situations,” Cavaco said.

“Watching the footage at home on your computer is much different than your mindset after you encountered a violent suspect who just pulled a gun on you,” he said. “It’s easy to second guess from that comfortable perch.”

Honolulu Police Officer wears an AXON body camera outside district court. The charges of second-degree murder against officer Geoffrey H.L. Thom, 42, a five-year veteran of the force, and second-degree attempted murder against Zackary K. Ah Nee, 26, a three-year HPD veteran, and his partner Christopher J. Fredeluces, 40, who has 10 years of service with the department, were brought by criminal complaint after an Oahu grand jury declined to indict the officers.
Bodycams like this AXON model have become commonplace within the Honolulu Police Department as well as other Hawaii police departments. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Matters Of Discipline

Despite their widespread use, officers don’t always turn on their cameras, though they’re required to. Often other misconduct accompanies the failure to activate a body camera.

“It would certainly raise suspicions if in fact there is misconduct,” Alm said.

In 2021, four officers were disciplined for failing to turn on their cameras, and for failing to report it, police disciplinary records show.

Failing to active a body camera can bring discipline ranging from a verbal reprimand to dismissal, depending on the severity and frequency of the offense and the county.

Kauai Police Department reported just three cases of officers not turning on their camera since 2019.

They received counseling and were entered into an “early warning system with the possibility of progressive discipline if any subsequent violations occur,” a KPD spokesperson said.

The Maui Police Department investigated five employees for body camera violations between 2018 and 2022. They were all reprimanded and one received remedial training, according to MPD spokesperson Alana Pico.

The Hawaii County Police Department has not disciplined any officers for violating the body camera policy since it launched.

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