Police accountability bill heads for final vote

  • Malcolm Lutu

  • Black

  • Lee

  • Johanson

A bill to release the identities of fired or suspended county police officers is headed back to the full Legislature for a final vote.

If passed and signed into law, Hawaii’s four county police chiefs would be required 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 once the grievance procedure has concluded.

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That means officers suspended or discharged between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of this year would be included in the next report to the Legislature due by Jan. 31, 2021.

Additionally, the bill would eliminate the exemption for county law enforcement officers under the Uniform Information Practices Act, allowing for the release of information retroactively upon request.

“Transparency is critical to maintaining the public trust when you’re in charge of enforcing the law. The Legislature needed to take this step to help support and differentiate the many good officers who keep us safe from those who abuse their position of power,” said Oahu Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, House Labor and Public Employment Committee chairman.

Voting “aye” to pass the bill were Democratic Reps. Johanson, Chris Lee and Laura Thielen joined by Sens. Karl Rhoads, Clarence Nishihara and Roz Baker. The only “nay” vote was placed by Republican Sen. Kurt Fevella. All are Oahu legislators with the exception of Baker, who hails from Maui.

“The steps this bill takes will increase transparency, build trust in law enforcement, and make it easier for our good officers to do their difficult jobs with the help of a supportive community that trusts them,” said Lee, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 285, which also includes language regarding the state law enforcement standards board, is expected to go before both chambers for a final reading next week. If passed, it’s then transmitted to Gov. David Ige for his signature.

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. 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 in the 2019 session by Scott Nishimoto (D-Oahu), HB285 was supported 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 measure died quietly in conference in 2019, but carried over to the 2020 session. It was first scheduled for hearing this week upon the Legislature reconvening for a third time amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a significant development and it’s a great development. This is the exactly the right thing that the conference committee should have done under the circumstances,” Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said Wednesday after the bill’s passage out of conference committee.

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.

Malcolm Lutu, president, said Wednesday he knew it was a “losing battle,” but vowed to fight the retroactive release of the names of officers who were suspended or discharged prior to the bill’s effective date.

“That’s not fair. If they’re passing a new bill, a new law now, it should be forward, from here on out, not going back to whenever they want to do it,” Lutu said.

He added that the bill’s revival is a reaction to what’s happening on the mainland, including the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of an officer and protests calling for greater transparency and accountability of police officers that ensued.

“I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction from our politicians to pass this bill,” he said, noting there was no talk about HB285 this session, which opened in January, until this week.

Lutu said he was working Wednesday afternoon to inform the board and SHOPO membership that the bill had been passed by the conference committee.

“We’ve got to put our heads together with our counsel and try to draft at least something to get to the Legislature for the final testimony and share our part of what’s happening with our officers,” he said. “This is going to affect recruit and possible retirement because once they find out what the situation is, I don’t blame them for leaving.”

The annual report submitted by the Hawaii Police Department the state Legislature this year included six suspensions and five discharges. Two of the discharges and one of the suspensions were among sworn employees who’d already left the department.

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The discharges stemmed from an officer making unwanted contact with a juvenile female; an officer whose repeated misconduct brought “disrepute to himself and the department;” an officer failing to report discharging his firearm; an officer arrested for domestic abuse; and an officer assaulting a member of the public while off-duty.

Suspensions were for using credentials while off-duty to gain access to a restricted area; being arrested for DUI while off-duty; leaving post without authorization; mistreating a man in police custody; damaging an ex-girlfriend’s property; and assaulting a member of the public.

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