Newly released disciplinary reports show the sergeant was trying to protect his officers from a potentially violent confrontation with a suspect.

Editor’s note: The Honolulu Police Department is finally releasing officer misconduct records that Civil Beat requested under Hawaii’s public records law. In some cases it has taken years for the disciplinary action to be finalized and months or even years longer for the department to process our public records requests. We think many of the stories contained in the files are still worth telling. The details provide more insight into the officer’s thinking and behavior as well as a look at how HPD handled the case. We also we think it’s important that public agencies know we will still publish the information even if it takes them years to release it. In this story, a new supervisor thought he saw a better way to handle a tense situation. Some of his officers — and police higher-ups — disagreed. What do you think?

A Honolulu police sergeant got a one-day suspension after he let a suspected drunken driver walk away from a traffic stop with only a citation. He was trying to avoid a potentially dangerous confrontation with an offender who’d been violent with police in the past, he told internal affairs investigators. 

  • Special Report

The Professional Standards Office investigative report, which included a review of body cam footage, tells what happened:

Just before 2 a.m. on June 26, 2020, then-Sgt. Sonny Roden responded to the intersection of Hunakai and Keanu streets, where officers in East Honolulu’s District 7 had pulled over someone they suspected of driving drunk. 

The driver, whose name and pronouns are redacted in the report, had been charged with driving under the influence more than a week prior, and officers had to use force during the arrest. 

The driver was uncooperative, refused to exit the vehicle and asked to speak to a supervisor. One officer told Roden he could smell alcohol from five feet away. 

The driver refused to answer questions and argued with officers. At one point, the driver took out a cellphone and started recording them. 

Roden asked the other officers to step away from the car so he could speak to the driver alone. There was a dog in the car.

Roden decided the driver, who lived nearby, could take the dog and walk home. No arrest would be made and only a citation would be issued.

The driver then appeared to try to start the vehicle. “Do not start this vehicle,” Roden said. “Please, listen to me … I’m giving you an out right here.”  

Honolulu Police Department HPD officer vehicle cruiser car suv stock file photo
Six officers who were also on scene disagreed with the sergeant’s decision to not arrest the suspect, but they also said they did not believe he was motivated by fear or “cowardice.” (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

After a few minutes of arguing, the driver got out of the vehicle. Roden told the other officers on scene that he was allowing the driver to walk away with just a citation. 

That didn’t sit well with some of the officers. One asked why the driver wasn’t going to be arrested. 

“Not for this,” Roden responded. “It’s not worth it. We’re going to have to use force for this.” 

As a supervisor, he explained, he had to look out for the safety of his officers. 

“If one of you gets hurt because we’re rolling on the ground with this (redacted word) and I could have prevented it, if someone tears an ACL or breaks their finger or arm for an arrest, it’s not worth it,” he said.

Roden also told investigators that he considered “the current Covid-19 climate” at The Queen’s Medical Center in making his decision.

Investigators at first accused him of “cowardice” among other violations of police conduct for allowing the driver to walk away from the scene.

The six other officers who were there, though, told investigators that they did not believe their sergeant’s actions were motivated by fear or cowardice. But they also said they disagreed with Roden’s decision not to arrest.

In his written response submitted to investigators, Roden said his decision prevented his officers from being unnecessarily injured and helped avert potential litigation as well as financial liability for the city. He wrote that because the driver had refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, “robust probable cause” to arrest didn’t exist and any force used in an arrest would have been “unreasonable.” 

He told investigators “it was definitely a test as a new leader and supervisor” but he considered it a valuable learning experience. In retrospect, he said, he wished he’d talked more to his officers at the scene to get their input before letting the driver go.

In the end, Roden was disciplined for for failure to “provide leadership,” “take appropriate action” and “assume control of a crime scene,” according to a disciplinary summary of the case. He was suspended for one day.

Roden has since moved on to become a detective in District 1, which covers downtown and Chinatown, according to the police department. He declined to speak about the incident when reached by phone last week.

Police administration officials also declined to speak about the case, but Honolulu police spokeswoman Sarah Yoro said in an emailed statement that officers are required to follow the department’s standards of conduct and supervisors have “additional requirements.”

“Any violation or deviance from the standards of conduct may result in an investigation, which could lead to a disciplinary action,” she wrote.

Sgt. Sonny Roden said in a written statement to internal investigators that he didn’t see “robust probable cause” to arrest the driver and didn’t want to see his officers get hurt during a potentially forceful arrest. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

While the one-day suspension was not a serious punishment, the internal investigation offers a window into police culture and the barrier it can pose to police reform, said Daniel Stageman, director of research at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

It’s unusual for a disagreement between officers and their sergeant to be elevated to a disciplinary proceeding, he said, and the ultimate punishment, though light, was likely meant to send a message to the entire department.

“It sends a message that the cultural content of what it means to be a police officer and what it means to be a member of that fraternity, a member of that paramilitary organization, is more important, not only than the specific incident at hand … it’s more important than the command structure, it’s more important than public safety or reducing officer risk or reducing officer liability,” he said.

The fact that the sergeant’s decision not to arrest and avert a potentially violent conflict was met with so much opposition from his colleagues shows that this type of discretion in policing will be difficult to achieve unless there’s a major cultural shift, he said.

“If you can’t change the culture, then no amount of policy change is going to change the way that policing works,” he said.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author