Sheldon Haleck appeared delirious as he walked amid traffic downtown near Iolani Palace. Police responding to the scene ordered him off the street, then pepper-sprayed him and Tasered him twice.
After falling to the ground and being cuffed by officers, Haleck grew unresponsive and died hours later at the Queen’s Medical Center.
In the days after the March incident, the Honolulu Police Department described Haleck as “disorderly” and “combative.” A medical examiner’s report found that he was high on crystal meth.
But Haleck’s family says police used excessive force, with one officer pressing his knee into Haleck’s neck and back as he lay prostrate on the ground; officers then dragged him to the sidewalk.
“Haleck was electrocuted, attacked and killed by defendants,” according to a lawsuit filed by Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz on behalf of the family.
HPD announced last summer that it had launched an internal investigation into the incident.
But under a bill making its way through the Legislature this year, an independent review board administratively attached to the attorney general’s office would conduct a separate investigation in such cases.
Senate Bill 2196 would create a seven-member committee composed of former prosecutors, a deputy attorney general, a retired judge and a former chief law enforcement officer, to review cases in which someone is killed by a police officer, dies in custody or suffers serious bodily harm at the hands of police.
Seitz, who alleged a city cover-up in regard to the Haleck case during a news conference last year, said it’s a concept he supports, though he said he would need to take a closer look at the bill.
It’s like the “wolf watching the henhouse,” he said about police investigating police.
The measure is among a slew of other bills, many introduced by Sen. Will Espero, that seek greater oversight of law enforcement agencies. The bills have been making their way through various legislative committees this session.
Some of the major proposals this year include requiring law enforcement agencies to disclose more information about police officers who have been disciplined, requiring law enforcement agencies to report crime data to the FBI and creating a database of law enforcement officers who have been terminated.
“From my perspective they are good-government bills,” said Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point). “They talk about accountability, transparency and improving oversight.”
Similar proposals have failed in the Legislature in past years. But with a surge in national and local attention to police misconduct cases, Espero said, the proposals are generating more interest this year. There’s also been an uptick locally in the number of police officers being disciplined.
Last year 58 Honolulu police officers were suspended or given discharge notices, according to a disciplinary report that the department is required to file with the Legislature every year.
Officers were disciplined for sexual assault, domestic violence, possessing drugs, driving while intoxicated, being insubordinate and various other offenses ranging from severe to relatively minor.
Often officers hold onto their jobs. For instance, one officer attempted to break into a woman’s residence, damaging a wooden frame and screen in the process, according to the HPD’s latest disciplinary report. The officer was suspended for 20 days.
But that’s about all the information that is provided to the public.
Unlike other public employees, police aren’t required to release the names of suspended officers or details pertaining to those cases. And disciplinary files are often destroyed before the public is aware that an officer has been terminated. HPD has also refused to release information about officers who have resigned to avoid being fired.
Several bills would change that, including SB 2195, SB 2197 and SB 3016. The bills remove confidentiality exemptions under Hawaii’s public-records law for police and other law enforcement officers who have been disciplined.
SHOPO President Tenari Maafala didn’t respond to an interview request on the police-related bills, but the police union has long fought such disclosure.
In written testimony on SB 3016, Maafala argued that disclosing the names and details about disciplined officers would be unfair to the officers because of the heightened media interest in their cases compared with other government workers. The union also argues that it could impede police work.
The “release of officers’ names that have been suspended may have a chilling effect on the extent of action taken by officers who have to make split second decisions,” wrote Maafala. “It impacts not only the officers but their families, too.”
Another bill this session, SB 2194, would require law enforcement agencies to report their crime statistics to the FBI. In recent years HPD has stopped reporting the information.
“It benefits the state, lawmakers, decision makers and policymakers,” said Espero of the reporting requirement. “How do we know if crime is going up or down or what we need to do in these cases?”