Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome to another installment of the Pod Squad, as always, Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat, and today we’re talking about a lawsuit filed just last week regarding a lesbian couple that was arrested in a North Shore grocery store for public displays of affections. The story has gone viral. It’s number one on our site and it’s picked up many other places. I’m going to ask Nick Grube, our reporter, to explain it, but first I want to welcome Eric Seitz, the attorney in the case. Eric, welcome to the Pod Squad.
Eric Seitz: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
Blair: We look forward to hearing more from you, but first, Nick give us a quick set-up of what this case involves; the police officer Bobby Harrison, and the couple Courtney Wilson and Taylor Guerrero.
Nick Grube: Sure thing Chad. Hi everybody out there in podcast land, it’s been awhile for me …
Blair: Yeah, Nick it has been awhile. Welcome back.
Grube: Yes thank you.
So the case involves a lesbian couple who was grocery shopping on Oahu’s North Shore, in a Foodland. An off-duty officer by the name of Bobby Harrison came in and saw the two women kissing in the aisles and essentially told them to stop and that it was “disgusting.” They walked away from him, and he continued to harass them in the grocery store as they continued to show public displays of affection …
Blair: The lawsuit alleges.
Grube: Yes, the lawsuit alleges. Eventually it comes to a head in the checkout line, where he continues to harass the two women, according to the lawsuit, and then one of them tries to call 911 on the police officer, and the two women are detained, they’re restrained with zip ties, and arrested for an assault on an officer.
Blair: And then they ended up going to jail for two days until bail was able to be posted.
Grube: Yes, that’s my understanding, but I’m sure Eric can fill us in on all of this.
Blair: Yeah absolutely. Eric, this was a couple from the mainland that were vacationing in Hawaii just this past spring, is that right?
Seitz: Yes, they were here in March, and this was just their second day of their anticipated two-week vacation, and it turned into kind of a nightmare.
Blair: My gosh, are they ever going to come back?
Seitz: Actually, they’ve had a number of experiences in the wake of all this. For example, when they were released from jail, they had no place to go, so apparently they spent two days sleeping in a park. But eventually, a number of people befriended them and opened their houses to them, and allowed them places to stay until they could get jobs and make some money and rent an apartment.
Recently in the wake of this publicity, a number of people have offered them vacation homes and things link that, basically to dispel the impression that Hawaii is not a welcoming environment. So they have kind of mixed impressions in light of that experience.
Blair: What’s the reaction been? I understand you’ve been getting calls, not just from national media, but international.
Seitz: We have, this has been a big story. We had kind of anticipated that would be the case because, you know, Hawaii is a place where the whole concept of gay marriage really initiated in many respects, and everybody looks at Hawaii as kind of a very welcoming environment …
Seitz: Uniquely tolerant and welcoming environment, so for something like this to happen here, has a lot of visual shock.
Blair: Exactly. Now this is not the only case you’ve filed recently regarding HPD, and Nick, I’m going to turn to you again to tell me about the Sheldon Haleck case.
Grube: Yeah. Sheldon Haleck was a 38-year-old man who was, according to the police, acting erratically, several months ago (last spring actually), and running through the streets in dark clothes …
Blair: Was this Iolani Palace …
Grube: Yeah, it was near Ilolani Palace, which is in downtown Honolulu.
He was running through the streets, it was reported he was running back and forth through the streets in dark-colored clothes. The police officers show up and they try to get him out of the street, and according to them, (he) was resisting. And then they peppered sprayed him, and deployed their tasers on him, and arrested him, and took him to the sidewalk.
Blair: There was actually video of this right?
Grube: Eventually we got the video of it, but the most important part of this is — he died after this encounter. He was taken to the hospital and he died in the hospital. Not a lot of details have come out about the case, and again, I want to kind of pitch that off to Eric because he’s been having a lot of difficulties getting information.
Blair: The attorney in the case, Eric, tell us about the Sheldon Haleck case.
Seitz: Well, Mr. Haleck had some history of mental illness and drugs — but he was working, he was supporting his 2 1/2-year-old son — and on this particular evening, as far as we’ve been able to determine, he was having an erratic kind of episode. But he wasn’t threatening anybody, he wasn’t physically abusive to anybody, hadn’t committed any crime other then perhaps jaywalking, and the police arrived and confronted him.
What we see on the videos from the tasers is him holding his hands up and saying, “Okay, I’m gonna do what you ask me to do,” and yet they repeatedly taser him. He ends up on the ground, somebody puts a knee on his back while they forcibly administer the handcuffs, and they drag him from the streets onto the sidewalk.
When you see pictures of him in the hospital, it looks pretty horrible with all the scratches on his body and his face, and then he died as a consequence of all this, and the medical examiner ruled it a homicide.
Seitz: And you know, we filed this lawsuit after months of trying to get the autopsy report, the police reports, the videos from the taser, the actual taser reports themselves, which they’re required to submit — and the police have given us virtually nothing. What we’ve gotten, we’ve gotten from the media, who’s asked for it under freedom of information.
And when we’ve complained to the Corporation Counsel and to the police chief about the lack of any explanation for this man’s death, they basically have refused to respond.
Grube: Which I think is kind of interesting because, Eric, you and I have talked about this before, because you haven’t had this much trouble in the past with other cases. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that, and how this compares to other work that you’ve done.
Seitz: Well, this is very different. You know, we talked to the medical examiner. He quite frankly told us that he’d been instructed not to give us any information without the permission from some city authority — the prosecutors office or the police department — and when we wrote to the Corporation Counsel and called repeatedly trying to get some assistance, we got nothing.
So, it’s very bizarre, and I’ve never had quite that experience before. Now you know this death is, in my view, comparable to cases that have occurred on the mainland, and I can understand perhaps that the city is very concerned about the liability that they’re facing in this matter, but by the same token, responsible city officials have an obligation to explain to families and to members of the public what happened when something like this occurs, and to assure the public that they’re taking appropriate steps to address what took place, and thus far we’ve received no explanation and no assurances whatsoever.
And it’s aggravated by the fact that Sheldon’s dad is a very well known and highly respected law enforcement official who retired after 30 years of working for the Drug Enforcement Administration and has performed law enforcement duties, is still doing that, down in American Samoa. So the federal law enforcement community is very upset about the way this matter has been handled as well, and that, along with other issues pertaining to chief Kealoha, I understand has created quite a controversy and a rift.
Blair: The stolen mailbox and the family battle …
Grube: … FBI investigation, yes …
Blair: Let me see if I understand correctly — homicide, so basically he was murdered. It would be the police …
Blair: Murder is not the right way to put it …
Seitz: No, murder is not … there are justifiable homicides and unjustifiable homicides. The medical examiner declared, however, that this was a homicide, which means a death caused by other people. And whether it was deliberate or not, whether it rises to the level of a crime or not, that’s not the medical examiner’s call.
What the medical examiner did, was he leaned over backwards to suggest that Sheldon died because of the drugs in his system, but that really is irrelevant because he was walking and talking and working and leading, for all intents and purposes, a relatively normal life before he died.
Blair: OK, two questions, what happened to the officers, have they been suspended? The second question is, is Internal Affairs looking into this?
Grube: So at this point, we have no indication that the officers have been disciplined or retrained or anything, and that goes to the big transparency issue surrounding the Honolulu Police Department and Hawaii police in general. The public just doesn’t get to learn about that information here unless somebody is fired, which is actually quite rare in this state.
You know, I think what was clear from that autopsy report, though, is that even though Sheldon Haleck did have drugs in his system, the fact that the medical examiner called it a homicide said that he probably would not have died but for the actions of the police officers, so I think that’s just a very important note to make. But again, medical examiner saying it’s a homicide is different from a legal explanation.
Blair: You know, all across the country, there has been story after story after story about police brutality or excessive force, from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City to any number — Charleston, South Carolina — I don’t sense that there’s much local outrage about this, and I’m wondering why is that — I mean, arresting two lesbians for showing affection, a homicide for a man who didn’t appear to be committing a crime, this is not the first time we’ve had police misconduct, as Nick knows from the series, why is there not more outrage, Eric?
Seitz: Well, you know I’ve been doing this for 40 years in this community, and 20 years or so ago, people used to ask me from the mainland, “do you have cases where police kill people,” and at that point in time, maybe as early as the 1990s, I would tell people, “no we don’t.” They may use a flashlight to beat somebody up, but we don’t have the serious kinds of cases that people have elsewhere.
Well, all of a sudden, in the last 20 years or so, there’s been just a rash of these cases, and things have changed, and the public doesn’t have the perception that the police are using force and violence in ways that are, just generally speaking, unnecessary. There are really very few cases where deadly force is necessary, and I think generally speaking, the public in this community doesn’t appreciate that there’s been a really significant change.
One reason for that is that in this community, the Police Department has very close ties with local citizens. In every case where I’ve picked a jury involving a police officer, more than two-thirds of the jurors have aunties or uncles or cousins or somebody who has a connection to the Police Department, and for those people, most of them recognize, it’s a very difficult job, police officers make mistakes, and they give them benefit of the doubt, and that was always (how) it’s been, and it still is in this community, even though the benefit of the doubt is a far more serious concession given the nature of these cases.
Blair: You know, Nick, you’ve written about having an independent police commission. Perhaps I have the words wrong, but even Sen. Will Espero recently has said, we really need to have something like this. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Grube: Right, well I think this all kind of goes back to the issue of …
Blair: It’s oversight right?
Grube: Police oversight and accountability, right, and how do you keep the police accountable? And there have been a lot of questions raised recently about whether or not the current system in place does do that — like do the police do a good job policing themselves? It could be argued by many that they don’t …
Blair: No one’s policing the police.
Grube: Right, right. So they are policing themselves essentially. There is a Honolulu Police Commission that is an appointed board of citizens that are suppose to oversee the Police Department, but even they have come under fire recently for having their decisions overturned by the department.
For instance, there were two hikers who were misidentified for burglars. A bunch of officers approached them and threw them on the ground. One of the hikers got fractured bones in his face as a result …
Blair: Yeah, that photo’s on our website in your story.
Grube: Right, right. It was a pretty brutal arrest by all accounts. The Honolulu Police Commission thought so as well — said that two of the officers used excessive force and said that to the Police Department, that said, “Nah, these guys were all acting under the color of law, they were fine,” and didn’t do anything to discipline the officers or retrain the officers.
The city eventually settled the lawsuit, which I think again gets us to this idea of accountability. Where does the accountability comes from, and I know Eric, a long time ago you and I had talked about this, that you feel that sometimes the accountability comes though the courts?
Seitz: Well, the problem unfortunately is that even when we win cases, and I’ve won many of them, the officers individually don’t feel any consequences. They’re not disciplined. They’re not retrained. They’re not made to pay any of the monies for damages that their victims received from their own individual sources — the city and county covers that.
As far as I know, I have never encountered a case, even where we have won the case, and the case has gone to the Police Department, the Police Department has done anything to the officers involved. Even, call them in and say, “hey this is really a bad situation.”
And it doesn’t happen in criminal cases either, where there are successful appeals and the courts have determined that the police officers have committed misconduct warranting a reversal of a conviction. Nobody goes back to the police officer and says, “hey you did something wrong, you gotta do it differently next time.”
Grube: And I think this is why state Sen. Will Espero wants to create another oversight agency, a statewide one, that licenses and certifies police officers, and sets a minimum standard for training, because they will be able to, hopefully in his view, crack down on misconduct and issues of training, even if it’s somebody deploying their taser inappropriately, then they could be, maybe retrained or have their license yanked and no longer have a job.
Blair: Well I have a feeling we could talk about this forever, and we will be talking about this again, and Eric and Nick, I know you will keep us posted on the Bobby Harrison case involving the lesbian couple, the Sheldon Haleck case involving the taser and the death. Eric Seitz, thank you for being on the Pod Squad, your first, and I’m hoping not your last.
Seitz: Thank you.
Blair: And Nick Grube, as always, a pleasure, it’s been too long, you’re back.
Grube :Nick: Ah yes, thanks for having me Chad.
Blair: Thank you everybody for tuning in to another episode of the Pod Squad. As always, Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat, take care and aloha.