Recent national stories report officers involved in shootings and other serious incidents are quickly fired. But in Hawaii final discipline can take years.

In January, within two weeks of police beating Tyre Nichols so badly he later died, the Memphis Police Department conducted an internal investigation and fired five of the officers involved.

They also face second-degree murder charges. A total of seven officers had been fired by March 7, and another had retired, The Associated Press reported.

From 4,000 miles away, the swift hand of justice awed Honolulu police commissioners.

“How is it that they can act so quickly in Memphis but our process goes on for so long?” Commissioner Ann Botticelli asked Chief Joe Logan at a February meeting of the Honolulu Police Commission.

Street video showing the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by members of the Memphis Police Deptartment on Jan. 7. Five of the officers were fired within weeks. (Screenshot/Memphis Police Department)

The Memphis officers’ termination seemed like a snap of the fingers, circumventing the lengthy union-involved arbitration process that Honolulu police accused of misconduct often go through.

“I’d have to understand what their union relationship and their department policies are,” Logan replied.

Asked about the rapid dismissal of the Memphis officers during a meeting in February with the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Logan agreed that the Memphis department “took all the right actions for what it needed to do. They needed to take immediate action against the five officers.”

But, “we have a four-step grievance process for discipline,” Logan said. “And so that’s how our officers are engaged in that process. And that process takes a while.”

“We don’t have an agreement with our City and County of Honolulu that would allow me to terminate somebody that quick,” he said in the same interview.

The Honolulu Police Department’s latest report to the Legislature testifies to the amount of time the department can take to discipline its officers: A case from 2017 remained in arbitration, and a case from 2018 alleging an officer committed criminal property damage was still pending. So was the case of Derek Hahn, who was found guilty in 2019 of federal conspiracy charges for his involvement in the Louis Kealoha affair.

Another 32 cases of police officer misconduct, going back to 2020, remained in arbitration or pending according to records filed with the Legislature by HPD.

The grievance process also allows some officers accused of criminal conduct to return to the force.

Honolulu Police Commission Chair Doug Chin said the commission has little power at present to modify processes for disciplining officers. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

A 2020 disciplinary listing shows that Officer Blake Oshita was discharged for driving under the influence, but after the grievance process, his punishment was reduced to a six-month suspension. Since then, three more officers discharged for criminal conduct had their punishment reduced to suspension after the grievance process.

“Commissioners in meetings also asked what we as the Police Commission could do about this,” commission chair Doug Chin said in a statement.

“The answer, we learned, is not much,” Chin said.

Disciplining police for misconduct is governed by the collective bargaining agreement between the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers union, and the governor and county mayors, Chin explained.

“The police chiefs, elected and appointed officials, and the public might all have input into what police officer discipline in Hawaii should be like, but we are not at the bargaining table on this issue,” he said.

Those key players most often remain the same nationwide, according to Vincent Del Castillo, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It just depends on what provisions are in the contract, and that’s agreed upon between the department and the union,” said Castillo, a former New York Police Department transit chief.

The Reality In Memphis

Despite the perception, the Memphis Police Department does not have a policy that enables immediate dismissal.

“Nor has it ever had such a policy in the time I’ve lived here,” said Daniel Connolly, a longtime former investigative reporter for the Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper.

Instead, the Memphis Police Department has its own bureaucratic process, usually with the union involved and similar to Honolulu, he said.

Announcing the firing of the five officers, the Memphis Police Department said its internal investigation found they violated its policies on excessive force, duty to render aid and duty to intervene.

The Memphis Police Association president, Essica Cage-Rosario, said the union opposed the department firing them before the state finished its own investigation, the New York Times reported.

“The firing of the officers in the Tyre Nichols case was rapid, but my understanding is that even this quick process would have followed the procedures outlined in the manual, and the officers would retain their appeal rights,” Connolly said.

Follow-up questions to the City of Memphis and the City of Memphis Police Department were not answered. The Memphis Police Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and SHOPO have not had any discussion about modifying the bargaining agreement to allow for immediate termination, according to SHOPO President Robert Cavaco and Ian Scheuring, a spokesperson for the mayor.

HPD can terminate officers “for cause,” but only after an internal investigation to determine that such cause exists, Scheuring wrote in an email.

SHOPO President Robert Cavaco speaks to Civil Beat reporters in our conference room.
Internal investigations are a defense against politicizing the police, SHOPO President Robert Cavaco said. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“Otherwise, you run the risk of running a completely subjective and punitive Department, which is a breeding ground for cronyism and politicizing the police force,” Cavaco wrote in an email.

Even in a hypothetical scenario where an officer commits some obvious and terrible offense, the process remains the same.

“The process is fact-specific, meaning how the process plays out depends on the facts of the case,” Scheuring wrote.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, the police chief already has the power to take disciplinary action against an officer “on Day One” by putting them on leave without pay, Cavaco said.

This is in some respects equivalent to firing an officer — suspending their salary, police work and interaction with the public — and reduces the risk of wrongful termination lawsuits against the city, Cavaco said. Such suits can cost taxpayers dearly, requiring the city to pay back pay, damages and attorney fees, he said.

An officer on unpaid leave loses their police powers, badge, gun and permission to step foot on HPD property for 30 days, he said. At the end of that period, the chief can extend the leave up to 60 days total, or terminate the officer.

An officer who is terminated can still exercise their due process rights and ask a court to reinstate them, and if the arbitrator finds any fraction of the punishment was “unwarranted,” the officer is paid back the proportional wages, Cavaco said.

The slow speed of an internal investigation to find cause for termination, however, falls largely to the department.

Eighteen months after the 2021 Makaha car crash that left numerous people injured, the four police officers involved were charged with felonies. They remain on desk duty.

In the February police commission meeting, then-commissioner Richard Parry doubted the need to take so long.

“It just seems like a year on that incident, for an internal investigation, it seems excessive,” he said.

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