Advocates for domestic violence victims say the process for filing complaints against police officers in Hawaii is too stringent and needs to be changed.
But like many other legislative reform measures targeting police oversight, their efforts to ease the complaint process have failed at the Legislature the past two years.
Proponents cite the powerful law enforcement lobby and especially a police union that effectively protects its members’ interests.
State Sen. Laura Thielen, one of the main sponsors of the complaint bill, says she plans to try again next session.
Supporters of the legislation say the requirement that complaints be in writing, notarized and presented in person or through the mail is especially stringent, particularly for domestic violence victims who are in abusive relationships with police officers and are worried about retaliation.
Requiring an abuse victim to identify herself “basically is saying to the victim that you have to put your life in jeopardy before we will consider conducting an internal review,” Thielen said. “And that’s not right.”
She said victims should be able to file complaints anonymously until their protection can be assured, especially given that their alleged abusers have the authority to carry a gun and use deadly force.
Most jurisdictions have a less stringent process for filing complaints, national experts say. Most allow complaints to be filed online, and the majority do not require notarized statements, according to Liana Perez of the National Association for Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement.
The notary requirement is part of HPD’s collective bargaining agreement with the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
The stringent process contributes to HPD having an unusually low number of complaints, critics say.
The Honolulu Police Commission averages fewer than 120 complaints a year — a number Perez said was low for a department with 2,100 officers. Other large departments average 200 or more, with some well over 1,000, according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser random online check of about a dozen agencies.
Ron Taketa, chairman of the commission, said he doesn’t believe Honolulu’s low numbers are due to the process. In the late 1980s, when Taketa first joined the commission, the panel received many more complaints for more serious infractions, and the notary requirement was in place then, he said.
Taketa credits the lower numbers in part to what he described as substantially improved police training and the commission’s efforts to work with HPD to address specific areas accounting for high numbers of complaints.
Taketa also said he didn’t get the sense that people are not filing complaints because they have lost faith in the process.
The bill to ease the complaint process was opposed by SHOPO, while the attorney general’s office said the measure potentially could be challenged in court over constitutional questions.
The union said written statements from complainants carry more credibility in court than written summaries by investigators and that sworn statements underscore the gravity of making allegations.
It also said that leveling domestic violence charges against an officer would preclude the officer from working special-duty jobs, which often is used to earn extra money to help pay mortgages and private-school tuition.
CROSSING THE LINE
Here are examples of HPD officers who got in trouble for conduct that occurred while they were members of the force:
Michael Steven Chu
While he was an officer, Michael Steven Chu and his girlfriend were growing marijuana to sell. They were arrested in 2012 as authorities were executing a search warrant at the girlfriend’s Honolulu apartment. The search turned up marijuana plants and bundles of cash. Authorities also found marijuana growing inside Chu’s rented home. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to grow and possess marijuana for sale and was forced off the force. Chu was sentenced in federal court to eight months in jail.
A surveillance video, leaked to the media, showing off-duty HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola fighting with his girlfriend at a Waipahu restaurant in 2014 sparked immediate criticism of the Honolulu Police Department. The department took heat not just because of Cachola’s conduct in a public place, but because the responding officers did not arrest him or file a report. The case eventually was presented to a grand jury, which did not indict Cachola. The girlfriend told police they were playing around. Cachola no longer is with HPD.
Officer Ming Wang originally was charged with misdemeanor domestic abuse — a charge that would have prevented him from carrying a gun if convicted. But Wang was able to keep his job by agreeing to plead guilty in 2009 to misdemeanor assault and petty misdemeanor harassment. A state judge granted Wang’s request for a deferred plea, and after a year free of trouble, the court dismissed the charges. Wang could face more trouble. Prosecutors are deciding whether to prosecute him after he was seen in a 2014 video using his baton to repeatedly strike a man who had sat too close to an endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
Here is a sampling of police-related reform bills that have faltered at the state Legislature the past two years.
SB: Senate bill HB: House bill
SB 396/HB 456
>> Specifies that citizen complaints against a police officer for domestic abuse shall not be required in writing or sworn by the complainant
>> Requires names of police officers suspended for misconduct to be considered public information
SB 389/HB 450
>> Requires three members of each county’s police commission to have background or experience in women’s issues, civil rights and law enforcement
>> Establishes a law enforcement standards board to certify police
and other law enforcement officers for the counties and state
SB 2411/HB 2108
>> Creates requirements, restrictions for body-worn cameras and vehicle cameras for county police departments
>> Requires the state to maintain a database of all terminations or forced resignations of local law enforcement personnel
Source: Legislative records, Sen. Will Espero