Every year the Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii county police departments are required to submit a report to the Hawaii Legislature that summarizes disciplinary action taken against officers for misconduct.
The annual reports stem from a 1995 legislative compromise. At the urging of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO), lawmakers exempted police disciplinary records from public disclosure, an exception to the state’s public records law afforded to no other public employee.
The summaries are a simple listing of misconduct incidents that result in disciplinary action — suspension or discharge.
There’s no way to know if some officers are being disciplined over and over again. The disciplinary actions listed in the summaries aren’t accurate and results of the grievance process aren’t updated.
The punishment issued by the department is widely varied for similar-sounding incidents, with no explanation.
Here are two situations, one involving filing accident reports and one in which officers appear to be involved in an accident:
2000: Falsely reported a motor vehicle collision involving an undercover vehicle. 10 days. 2001: Failed to initiate a motor vehicle collision report, then made a false report as to how the vehicle was damaged. Discharged. 2003: Failed to initiate a motor vehicle collision report and include the cause of a suspect’s injuries in the police report. 20 days.
2002: Fled the scene after being involved in a motor vehicle collision and did not properly report the incident. 10 days. 2004: Intentionally forced another motorist off the road while driving and caused a motor vehicle collision. Used profanity toward and shoved several people. 5 days. 2005: Entered a plea of nolo contendere to fleeing the scene of a motor vehicle collision and false reporting to law enforcement authorities. Failed to submit the required documents after being notified of criminal proceedings. 2 days.
For a few years after the Legislature approved the disclosure exemption, the summaries of misconduct garnered a lot of media coverage. But over the years, lawmakers and others have paid little attention to them. The reports are addressed to the Senate president and House speaker. But Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, the former Senate president, says now he doesn’t remember much about the summaries.
“If anything, we try to get the reports to the committee chairs who would be involved in some of those issues,” Tsutsui said, adding that the summaries are not an effective way to bring problems to light.
But the misconduct reports are given short shrift at the committee level, too. House Judiciary Committee chair Karl Rhoads says he knows the reports exist, but that he hasn’t delved into one.
Sen. Will Espero has chaired or been a member of the Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee for several years. He concedes he’s never read one. Yet Senate Bill 839, which aims to close a loophole in the reporting requirements, recently passed his committee as well as the full Senate.
Civil Beat also asked former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle and current Mayor Kirk Caldwell about the summaries. The mayors of each city and county are responsible in a couple of ways for police oversight. They appoint the police commissioners who hire the police chiefs, and they negotiate the labor agreements with SHOPO which control many aspects of the departments’ authority to discipline bad cops.
Both Carlisle and Caldwell acknowledged they’d never read the summaries.
Honolulu Police Commission Executive Director Gregory Gilmartin said the police chief updates the commission on disciplinary actions taken against officers. That briefing takes place behind closed doors in executive session, he said.
The summaries are not easy to find even after they are sent to legislative leaders.
Espero notes that it’s been difficult even for him as the Public Safety committee chair to get the reports. That’s a concern shared by others who have tried to track them, including Civil Beat.
A search of “Reports to the Legislature” on the legislative website turns up listings for the documents. But click on them and all that’s available online is the cover letter from the police chief. The remainder of the report, including the summaries describing the types of misconduct and disciplinary actions, have to be found elsewhere.
The full summaries are not being sent to legislative leaders, Espero said. “Unless one seeks it out or wants the information, it’s just not readily available to the public.”
Veteran journalist Bev Keever took on her own quest last year to gather the annual reports of misconduct.
Keever is a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Hawaii and a former Vietnam war correspondent for Newsweek. She was involved when Hawaii’s Uniform Information Practices Act was created in the late ‘80s and has worked for years to keep exemptions to a minimum, including in 1995 when police disciplinary records became confidential and the annual reports were mandated.
Since retiring from teaching full time, she’s still kept a close eye on public records issues, sometimes testifying before the Legislature on bills that she believes reduce public access to government records. She decided to double check on whether the police agencies were in fact filing those annual summaries.
She too found the cover sheet with basic statistics. But she couldn’t find the more detailed summaries. She went first to the Senate President’s office and was re-directed to the Legislative Reference Bureau in the basement of the State Capitol, she said.
The LRB also had the cover letters, she said, but no summaries. She believes the police agencies have not been sending them to the Legislature as required.
“LRB had a hard time prying them loose and they had to go back several times,” Keever said. “I finally got all of them and realized it was just a great story.”
Keever shared the summaries she’d collected with Civil Beat and we obtained as many more as we could find.
But we couldn’t find them all, certainly not dating back to 1996 when the first reports were supposed to be filed. The Honolulu Police Department has submitted reports from 2000 through 2012. There was also one from 1998.
For the other counties, however, most of the reports over the years are missing. They are not available through the LRB, and trips to the Hawaii State Archive and Hawaii State Library turned up nothing.
Civil Beat has filed public records requests with the four county police departments to get the missing reports. So far, HPD has told us it only has summaries going back to 2000. We’re waiting on responses from the other counties.