POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 20, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Hawaii state law requires that police departments' 911 and dispatch tapes be made accessible to the public, for the good purpose of making police accountable. The Honolulu Police Department now refuses to do so over one tragic and horrific case, leaving the Honolulu Star-Advertiser no alternative but to file a lawsuit this past Monday to demand that HPD obey the law.
The department has records of 911 and police dispatch tapes involving a 17-minute shooting rampage on June 3 from the intersection of Kapahulu Avenue, Kapiolani Boulevard and Waialae Road to the H-1 freeway, where police arrested suspect Toby Stangel. Tammy Nguyen, 54, of Palolo, died from a gunshot wound and two other people were injured. Stangel, 28, is accused of shooting at and missing two police officers.
When the Star-Advertiser and other news organizations requested access to the 911 tapes following the shooting, police spokeswoman Michelle Yu said the tapes were part of "an ongoing investigation" and thus not available to the media.
When the paper followed up on the request five days later, Yu added, "The recordings have been submitted as evidence and are not being released at this time." That is not a legal reason to keep the tapes wrapped. Actually, one of the exemptions from public access is just the opposite — that the documents or recordings "would not be discoverable," i.e., that they would be unable to be presented as evidence, in court.
"Citizen pressure for oversight often emerges from police abuse, actual or perceived," according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. When police resist citizen review, it noted in a 2000 treatise, "public suspicion is heightened that a department is not operating as fully in the interests of the community as it should nor is it as forthcoming as it should be on critical issues."
That certainly was the case following Christmas 1991, when Dana Ireland was abducted and brutally assaulted on Hawaii Island and died after a county ambulance took 41 minutes to reach her on a beach road south of Hilo. A consortium of news organizations sued Hawaii County to gain access to the 911 tapes, and a state judge ordered that they be given access to the "public records." The 911 tapes in the case helped reveal holes in emergency response, and Ireland's parents later sued the county and accepted an out-of-court settlement totaling more than $450,000.
No one is making accusations of Honolulu police misconduct during last month's freeway shooting binge, and we appreciate that police may look upon themselves as the good guys who can be counted on to provide public safety.
However, that role carries with it public accountability, even though it may burden the police department to follow every word of the law.