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Proposals seeking better checks on isle police fall short

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Hawaii lawmakers had hopes for rebuilding public trust in the state’s police departments, but a number of bills that aimed to initiate reforms died during the 2015 session.

Several sought to change the way domestic violence is handled by law enforcement, but a number of the proposals were opposed by the Honolulu Police Department and the union that represents its officers.

"I don’t want to cast aspersions on all of the fine officers that we have, but it’s important that the police commission and other folks make sure that we do have the finest, and that the bad apples are weeded out," said Sen. Rosalyn Baker, a Maui Democrat.

One overarching proposal sought to create a statewide standards board to ensure that all law enforcement officers meet minimum age, education, conduct and moral standards requirements, among other things. The board would have had subpoena power to investigate whether officers met the minimum criteria.

The Honolulu Police Department opposed the bill, and at a legislative hearing, Maj. Gordon Shiraishi of the Training Division said his department already has the highest standards in the state.

"That’s a matter of opinion," said Sen. Will Espero, a Honolulu Democrat who introduced the standards board bill. "And when you look at some of the incidents and bad behavior of some of our police officers recently, that statement can certainly be challenged. … You only need a GED to be a police officer. Is that a high standard? I certainly don’t think it is."

In an incident last fall, a Hono­lulu police sergeant was investigated for domestic violence after an episode with his girlfriend that was caught by a restaurant’s surveillance cameras. Police turned the case over to prosecutors, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for charges, and a grand jury decided not to indict the sergeant after the woman said it was horseplay.

One bill that died would have relieved domestic violence victims of a requirement that their complaints are submitted in writing or in a sworn statement. State Rep. Della Au Belatti introduced the House version of that bill after domestic violence victims told their stories at a legislative hearing in the fall.

"Advocates came forward with testimony including victims who felt that they could not trust the system, especially when there were police officers involved," Belatti (D, Moiliili-Makiki-Tantalus) said.

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the union that represents police officers statewide, opposed the bill, saying that a victim’s best recall is usually right after the incident and a written statement reminds the writer of the gravity of the complaint. The union also said in written testimony that when domestic violence allegations are made against an officer, that officer’s police powers are removed and he or she can’t work special-duty assignments to earn extra money.

"I really don’t understand their opposition," Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said. "Depending on how traumatized one was, how hurt or injured, how shaken up, writing it all down might not be the easiest thing to do. An officer can take notes, and they are trained and capable of putting together a report."

The Legislature did pass a bill to require each county police department to post its policies related to officer-involved domestic violence on its website, after lawmakers couldn’t get the departments to do it on their own, Baker said.

"That kind of thing should have been a no-brainer but it wasn’t," Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui) said.

Espero plans to revive some proposals next session, including one that would give county mayors the authority to fire police chiefs, another that would give body cameras to police officers and a bill that would require departments to be transparent in naming officers involved with incidents.

Even though many bills didn’t succeed, lawmakers are hoping that by airing the issues in public hearings they may have helped prompt change.

"There just seems to me to be a need to make sure that the police are acting appropriately," Baker said.

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