KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would shine a brighter light on county police misconduct across the state is making its way through the state Legislature.
House Bill 285, if enacted into law, would require Hawaii’s four county police chiefs to disclose in annual reports to the state Legislature the identity of an officer upon an officer’s suspension or discharge from a county police department.
Currently, the reports outline misconduct, discipline and whether the grievance procedure has concluded, however, there’s no disclosure of identity. The law requiring the report to the Legislature, which is publicly accessible, has been on the books since 1995; its scope disclosing more details was expanded in 2014.
Introduced by Scott Nishimoto (D-Oahu), the bill supported by various groups, media and individuals, including the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter, American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers has filed testimony in opposition of the bill.
It passed two readings on the House floor and a hearing before the Committee on Judiciary, which voted Thursday to move the bill to the House floor for a third vote. If passed there, it will cross over to the Senate for further consideration.
Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) was among the seven committee members voting Thursday to pass the bill.
“I think it’s positive because right now all other public employees, their misconduct is disclosed and there’s an exemption for police officers,” Lowen said. “It’s important that we’re able to trust the police force, and I think it’s important to have more accountability and oversight.”
Cheryl Kakazu Park, Office of Information Practices director, said the proposal would treat information about an officer’s suspension the same way as information about any other government employees’ suspension or termination. State law enforcement officers are not afforded the protection county officers are.
“While all other government employees’ misconduct information becomes public if the misconduct resulted in suspension or termination, the current law gives police officers a special statutory privacy interest even in information about misconduct that resulted in suspension,” Park wrote in testimony in support of HB 285, also noting the measure “would no longer provide a special statutory privacy interest for an officer’s suspension.”
Malcolm Lutu, SHOPO president, submitted testimony in “strong opposition” of the bill “to wipe out the current privacy protections afforded police officers who have taken on the very dangerous task of protecting you and your constituents in our community.”
Lutu, who oversees the union representing officers across the four counties, pointed to the July murder of Hawaii County police officer Bronson Kaliloa, and an array of other instances in 2018 in which police were involved in volatile situations that required use of lethal and nonlethal force.
“These are just a sample of the volatile and extremely dangerous situations our officers face every day while on the job protecting our citizens. These are dynamic and highly charged situations that require split-second decisions. While we rely on our training to make the correct split-second decisions, we are human and are the first to admit we are by no means perfect,” Lutu said.
The union president added that “relative to the extreme dangers of the jobs, officers can and are suspended for relatively minor offenses,” such as being late to work, submitting reports late or being involved in a minor car accident.
“Disclosing the name of a suspended police officer as HB285 seeks to do will not hold an officer more responsible for any errors, mistakes or wrongdoings he/she commits. Publicly disclosing an officer’s name adds absolutely nothing to the multi-layered disciplinary procedures and protocols that are already in place which holds each and every officer responsible for his/her actions,” Lutu said. “What HB285 will promote is the selling of newspapers, shaming of our officers’ families and discouraging new recruits from joining the department.”
He also referenced the various processes by which alleged misconduct is currently handled within the departments and the power and authority of the county police commissions to conduct investigations and hear complaints from the pubic. The state Attorney General’s office and county prosecutors can also investigate and bring charges against an officer who has engaged in unlawful conduct.
“Unless the Legislature strongly feels the respective county police chiefs and police commissioners are not doing their jobs to acceptable standards, disclosing a suspended officer’s name will not make an officer any more accountable for his/her actions than already exists,” he wrote in closing before thanking lawmakers for their time.
Contacted Friday about why the six pages of testimony touched mainly on suspended officers’ identities, Lutu said the disclosure of names of officers, whom completed the grievance procedure, is already permitted. While they are not included in the annual report, they can be requested. An officer arrested/charged is also public information.
Attempts to reach Paul Ferreira, Hawaii County police chief, for comment on the proposed legislation were unsuccessful. The department did not submit testimony for the bill.
The annual report submitted by Ferreira to the state Legislature this year included seven suspensions, two discharges and one sworn employee held in abeyance during an internal investigation stemming from drugs missing from an evidence locker. The detective later retired before the investigation could be completed.
Suspensions were for issuing traffic citations for false violations, failing to follow orders of a commanding officer, an off-duty officer misusing authorized credentials to gain access to a restricted area and an off-duty officer repeatedly contacting dispatch via cellphone inconveniencing dispatchers and causing an employee to feel concern or distress.
The two discharges were for an officer testing positive for drugs and another for assaulting a juvenile.