Police accountability bill back on the table

  • RHOADS

A measure to disclose the names of officers discharged or suspended from a county police department is back on the table.

House and Senate conferees will meet today to discuss House Bill 285, which was not reported out of conference committee in 2019 and carried over to the 2020 Legislature that reconvened for a third time on Monday.

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The measure 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.

A proposed conference draft submitted for Tuesday’s meeting added to the bill several pages of language regarding the state’s law enforcement standards board. However, conferees agreed to focus on clarifying the board’s power to revoke certification and requiring the panel make recommendations to the Legislature on policies and procedures relating to law enforcement, such as use of force.

“I think you and I both agree that might be just muddling the issue a bit and to make it more salient and clear that we intend to focus on transparency and disclosure,” Oahu Democratic Rep. Aaron Johanson, who chairs the House Committee on Labor, said to Sen. Karl Rhoads, also an Oahu Democrat. “I think we both are on the same page about potentially reducing the new additions to the bill.”

Rhoads, who chairs the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, concurred, moving the conversation to the “meat” of the bill: disclosure of an officer’s identity upon suspension or discharge.

“Right now, county police officers have a special exemption under (Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter) 92F-14. Your proposal is basically to eliminate that?” Rhoads asked Johanson who confirmed that was indeed the proposal’s intent.

The senator also questioned whether information would only be provided to the Legislature once the grievance process is finished and whether lawmakers would receive more information than the public would be able to obtain.

“We probably need to have some more discussions about what should be reported to the Legislature and when,” Johanson said.

The House and Senate conferees subsequently agreed to submit a new conference draft and take up the matter this afternoon.

“Hopefully, we should be able to decide quickly,” Rhoads said.

Currently, the report submitted annually to the Legislature outlines misconduct, discipline and whether the grievance procedure has concluded, however, there’s no disclosure of identity.

Introduced by Scott Nishimoto (D-Oahu), HB285 was supported in 2019 by various groups, media and individuals, including the state Office of Information Practices, 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, SHOPO, the union representing officers across the four counties, and a handful of individuals opposed the legislation.

After introduction in January 2019, the bill cruised through the House before crossing over to the Senate with little change. In the Senate, a committee added language requiring the disclosure of the information starting in 2021 and that the report contain names of officers suspended after March 1, 2020.

The measure then passed a third reading on the Senate floor and was transmitted back to the House, where representatives voted to disagree with amendments made in the other chamber.

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In conference, legislators from both sides were unable to reach an agreement leaving the bill dead. Because 2019 was the first year of the Legislature’s biennial cycle, the measure carried over to the 2020 session, which has reconvened for a third time amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill’s revival comes amid calls from the public for greater transparency and accountability of police officers following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. The incident was captured on video, showing a white police officer’s knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, including several minutes during which Floyd was unresponsive.

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