Just seconds before the crash, Honolulu police officer Clarence Neves Jr.’s white Ford Taurus was traveling more than twice the speed limit on Puuloa Road, rushing to the scene of a reported fight. The computer in Neves’ car recorded his speed at 74 mph.
The limit was 35.
On that clear January night in 2016, Neves did not have his blue flashing lights on as he sped south on Puuloa, according to Honolulu Police Department records. His siren also was off.
By the time Christine Soroka realized what was about to happen, it was too late.
As she was turning left from a Wendy’s parking lot into the northbound lane of Puuloa, Neves’ vehicle broadsided her Honda Civic. Neves braked just before the collision, but he still was going 37 mph at impact, according to HPD’s investigation of the accident.
Soroka, then a Pennsylvania music teacher spending her final vacation night on Oahu, and Neves were transported to the hospital in serious condition.
As a result of Soroka’s injuries, which included a concussion and rotator cuff tear, both of which were diagnosed once she returned to the mainland, she said she had to give up her music career and business. Unable to generate steady income, Soroka said she also was forced to sell her Pennsylvania home at a substantial loss. She now lives on Maui, where she moved to initially live with her sister and is working as a nanny.
An issue of fairness
HPD eventually determined that Neves’ actions that January night violated six standards of conduct, according to department records. The agency found that Neves failed to use his flashing blue lights and siren and was driving at an unreasonable rate of speed.
Yet he suffered only a minor sanction: a written reprimand.
Soroka said Neves’ punishment was much too light, pointing out that he wasn’t even suspended.
“I lost everything,” she said. “He didn’t miss one day of work.”
Soroka’s criticisms have once again drawn attention to HPD’s secretive discipline system, resurrecting questions of whether administrative punishments doled out for officer misconduct tend to be too lenient.
The renewed attention is coming at a time when a new chief, Susan Ballard, has taken the reins at the department and, according to one of her deputies, has ordered a review of HPD’s entire discipline system to bring more consistency to the process.
“Fairness is a big issue in this,” said John McCarthy, who recently was promoted by Ballard to become HPD’s deputy chief for field operations.
McCarthy declined to comment on the Neves case, citing pending litigation. Soroka has filed a negligence lawsuit against the city and Neves.
But the deputy chief said Ballard ordered the review once she took over the leadership reins. Asked if a police union complaint triggered the action, McCarthy replied, “The union doesn’t drive the machine here.”
It’s difficult to determine how consistent and fair HPD has been in imposing discipline because those records are not public under Hawaii law.
Law enforcement officers in the islands are the only state or county workers who by statute are afforded confidentiality protections in discipline cases. With the exception of firings, the names of disciplined officers are protected from public disclosure. When other state or county workers are punished for misconduct, such actions are considered public.
What little information that is accessible in HPD cases, however, suggests uneven applications of punishment.
A review of the annual disciplinary reports that the department is required to file with the Legislature shows that officers who were found to have violated HPD’s pursuit policy have been suspended for at least a day — even in cases in which the officer violated fewer conduct standards than Neves.
One 2015 case stood out for its similarities.
In that incident, the officer, while responding to a nonemergency call, was involved in a vehicle collision that caused serious injury, according to the 2015 disciplinary report. The officer was found to be speeding and failed to activate his blue lights and siren — just like in the Neves case. He also failed to use his seat belt.
Like with the Neves case, the accident triggered a first-degree negligent injury investigation.
But unlike Neves, the officer in the 2015 case was suspended for 20 days. The punishment later was reduced to 10 days through the union grievance process, according to the 2015 report.
There was no other information in the disciplinary report to determine how that case might differ from the Neves one.
McCarthy cautioned against comparing cases, saying the circumstances in each are different and must be considered along with other factors, such as the officer’s discipline history and rank, in determining what sanction to impose.
Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, likewise advised against comparing cases because the context in each may be different and is not clear to the public.
But she said the punishment that Neves received was not sufficient, given the severity of the accident and that he was going at such a high rate of speed rushing to a reported fight, as opposed to rushing to an active shooting.
“Potentially, people could have been killed (in the accident),” said Haberfeld, who has used HPD discipline cases in her classes.
She said the Neves case fits a pattern of relative leniency at HPD when compared with discipline systems at some other police departments with which she is familiar.
Neves, who is still on the force, did not respond to a request for comment relayed through an HPD spokeswoman.
The Neves accident happened just as HPD was wrapping up a year in which it experienced the most officer-involved accidents since at least 2013. In 2015, 466 such accidents were reported, 43 percent more than in 2013, according to HPD data.
In 29 percent of the 2015 cases, the officer was deemed at fault, the data show.
McCarthy wasn’t sure what accounted for the spike in accidents, most of which were minor fender benders, he said.
But to address the rise in accidents, the department in 2014 started providing driver classes and driving exercises as part of the annual training that all officers go through.
The rate of accidents and the percentage of officers at fault have fallen the past two years, according to McCarthy.
The decline has emerged even as the job of responding to emergency calls becomes more challenging on Oahu’s congested streets, he said. “Traffic makes it that much harder.”
Besides the possibility of property damage and injury, officer-involved accidents can cost the city money.
Take the case of William Albright, who in 2010 was rushing to respond to a report of a male refusing to leave the premises at a Makaha address.
Traveling west on Farrington Highway at night, Albright’s police car collided with another car that was turning left onto eastbound Farrington from a side street.
Like in the Neves case, Albright did not have his siren or flashing blue lights on, according to court documents.
As in the Neves case, a police investigation determined that Albright was driving well above the speed limit of 35 mph at the time of the accident. An HPD investigator who specializes in accident reconstruction estimated that Albright’s car was traveling a minimum of 83 mph, according to court records.
A mainland expert hired by Albright in his defense disputed HPD’s estimate.
Eric Flores, the driver of the second vehicle, suffered serious injuries in the collision and sued the city and Albright for negligence. The defendants disputed the accusations, but the lawsuit eventually was settled, with the city paying Flores $90,000.
A key difference between the two cases came on the criminal side.
Albright was prosecuted for first-degree negligent injury. In the Neves case, prosecutors concluded that the evidence was insufficient to pursue the same charge.
A jury in February 2013 took just over an hour to acquit Albright, who is still on the force. He did not respond to a request for comment relayed through an HPD spokeswoman.
Because of the confidentiality protections, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser could not determine whether Albright was disciplined for the 2010 accident.
But Roy Bell III, who represented Flores and had another case in which a client was injured in a police collision, said anecdotally officers seem to escape punishment even when they speed excessively or fail to use their flashing lights or siren.
“Rarely do they get sanctioned,” Bell said, noting that the police union typically prevails in defending their members at administrative hearings.
A union official did not respond to a request for comment.
Prosecutors told the Star-Advertiser that they declined to pursue charges against Neves because of insufficient evidence and inconsistency in Soroka’s statements — a contention that Soroka disputes.
After Soroka challenged the decision, two other prosecutors reviewed the case, including one from a different division than the first two. All reached the same conclusion, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Soroka, however, issued a report challenging each of the prosecutor’s reasons and said she believes Neves is getting special treatment.
In the meantime, she said, she’s still struggling to cope with the effects from the accident and is still upset about no longer being able to pursue her passion as a classical flutist. Because of her head injury, Soroka said she can’t even listen to music most of the time — certain sounds are actually painful to her — and has to carry earplugs wherever she goes.
“It brings me to tears,” she said.
COP CRASHES ON THE DECLINE
After hitting a high in 2015, the number of vehicle accidents involving Honolulu police officers has dropped, according to data since 2013. The percentage of accidents deemed the officer’s fault also has been declining.
* Through mid-December
Source: Honolulu Police Department