Hawaii lawmakers have taken a major step toward opening up police officers to more public scrutiny and oversight when it comes to their misconduct.

On Tuesday, Hawaii House of Representatives voted unanimously on a bill that would eliminate a provision from the state’s public records law that for 19 years kept information about most police misconduct out of public view.

The House vote came late in the evening, and there was no discussion of the measure, although a number of representatives voted “with reservations.”

Rep. Karl Rhoads introduced House Bill 1812 as a means to make more information about police misconduct available to the public. It is a companion to Senate Bill 2591, which was introduced by Sen. Will Espero.

The original draft of HB 1812 sought to force county police chiefs to provide more information in annual reports submitted to the Legislature about police misconduct.

But Rhoads amended the bill to change Hawaii’s public records law as it pertains to county officers.

His amendment eliminates a controversial component of the law that only allows police chiefs to release specific details about officers who have been discharged from their respective departments. Details about the actions of officers who have been suspended but not fired have been off limits to the public.

HB 1812 also requires police departments to retain disciplinary files for 18 months after reporting misconduct to the Legislature in annual summaries.

“Police officers are obviously incredibly important in the function of society and when one goes bad somehow, I think it’s important for there to be information about what happened,” Rhoads told Civil Beat earlier this week. “It did not seem unfair to me because other employees who aren’t as important to the function of society in many cases could have that information released.”

Revisiting an Old Fight

The Senate has also passed its bill dealing with misconduct disclosure but it doesn’t eliminate the exemption like HB 1812 does. Each measure now heads to the other chamber for consideration.

The House action would help overturn years of secrecy in Hawaii’s police departments when it comes to officer misconduct.

In 1993 a group of University of Hawaii journalism students tried to get the names of suspended Honolulu police officers, but were rebuffed by the department, which was backed by the politically powerful police union.

The students sued to get the information, believing it should be made available under the state’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act.

The case went all the way to the Hawaii Supreme Court, where in 1996 the justices sided with the students in saying that suspended officers don’t have an expectation of privacy when it comes to wrongdoing.

But the ruling came too late, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) had already flexed its political muscle at the Legislature in 1995, getting lawmakers to change the UIPA and exempt suspended cops from having their names or any details of their misconduct made public.

Since then, the only information that has been available is an annual report that each county police chief sends to the Legislature summarizing the number of incidents and types of misconduct that occurred within their departments in a given year.

UH journalism professor Gerald Kato was at the center of that tug-of-war over police disciplinary files.

He laughs about the prospect of the Legislature flipping the decision it made 19 years ago, calling HB 1812 a “tremendous sea change.”

“I hope it survives, it’s the right thing to do,” Kato said. “We believed then and we continue to believe that full disclosure involving all public employees is essentially correct.”

The Road Ahead

The Senate bill, SB 2591, doesn’t go as far as the House version.

SB 2591 likely will now go before the House Judiciary committee chaired by Rhoads and the Public Safety committee headed by Rep. Henry Aquino. Aquino allowed a similar bill to die in his committee last session.

The House measure will have to pass Sen. Clayton Hee’s Judiciary and Labor committee.

Both bills were supported by Brian Black, the executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

The nonprofit law firm represented Civil Beat in a lawsuit seeking to make public the disciplinary records of 12 Honolulu police officers who were suspended for 20 days or more from 2003 go 2012.

Civil Beat won that lawsuit in February, although SHOPO could appeal that ruling.

Should HB 1812 pass, Black said, it would undercut any arguments the union or other agencies might make about keeping police disciplinary records secret.

In essence, he said, police officers would be like everyone else who works in state or local government.

“It will be a very good day if it passes the way the House bill reads,” Black said.

Other supporters of the bills include the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter.

SHOPO President Tenari Ma’afala submitted testimony opposing both bills.

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