Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard is rejecting a suggestion that she instruct officers to “take a temporary step back” from arresting those suspected of nonviolent misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors to help ease overcrowding and stem the outbreak of COVID-19 at Oahu Community Correctional Center.
“We suggest that rather than ask officers to step back on enforcement, efforts be made to encourage your clients to make the same sacrifices our community has been making by following the laws and not committing low-level misdemeanors,” Ballard said in a letter to Assistant Public Defender Lee Hayakawa on Wednesday.
Hayakawa last week urged Ballard to consider the rising number of OCCC inmates that have been confirmed positive for COVID-19. As of Friday, the Department of Public Safety reported 242 of its roughly 973 inmates have tested positive. An additional 43 OCCC adult corrections officers and other staffers have tested positive.
The Office of Public Defender petitioned the Hawaii Supreme Court last week to release as many OCCC inmates as possible to reduce the historically overcrowded Kalihi jail’s population and lessen the spread of the coronavirus. At least 28 inmates at OCCC for misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor charges have been released this week, Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said. Another batch, this time of inmates incarcerated on felony charges, are to be released next week.
To be eligible, inmates need to be incarcerated on nonviolent offenses and not “crimes against a person.” They also must have tested negative for COVID-19.
The ruling has drawn objections from Attorney General Clare Connors, prosecutors and victim’s advocates who argue that public safety is being compromised by the speedy releases.
“I understand that this is a delicate balancing act — being mindful of placing arrestees/detainees in a high-risk situation with respect to the coronavirus while also upholding your duty to protect public safety,” Hayakawa said.
As a result, his office is asking that “you exercise your discretion and instruct all officers under your command to take a temporary step back on arrests for low level misdemeanors that do not pose a public safety risk and to suspend all additional arrests, unless there is a clear and present danger of imminent physical harm,” he said. “This should include all misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor offenses and all non-violent felonies.”
Ballard, however, said “while I share your concern about the number of COVID-19 cases in our jail and prison systems amongst prisoners and staff, I respectfully disagree with your proposed response to the problem.”
The public defender’s proposal is “not viable” and “sacrifices the safety of the law-abiding citizens in our community and allows those who choose not to follow the law to run free,” Ballard said.
Offenses such as trespass, property damage and theft would be among those that could be classified as “low-level misdemeanors,” she said. People trespassing at someone’s house or breaking car windows, as well as shoplifters or thieves would have no deterrence, Ballard said.
She added: “While these may seem like minor offenses to you, they are not minor to those who are the victims of such actions. Thus the HPD will continue to enforce the law without prejudice to anyone.”
The public defender’s office, in response to Ballard’s letter, reiterated its grave concerns about the OCCC outbreak.
“The efforts to reduce the OCCC population will never be successful unless we control the number of people coming into the jail, and that matter is largely under the control of the Honolulu Police Department,” the agency said. “Police use their discretion every day when deciding to issue someone a warning, citation or make an arrest.”
In its daily infection count report, the Department of Public Safety reported that two of 151 tests administered to inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center came back positive for COVID-19 Friday as the first phase of testing winds down.
An unofficial running tally of the daily numbers shows that, in all, there have been 225 positive results out of 870 tests conducted through mass testing that began on Aug. 11, a positive rate of 25.86%.
Schwartz, the Public Safety spokeswoman, said all inmates at the Kalihi facility have now been tested at least once. The latest head count at OCCC showed 973 inmates, so results have yet to come in for the final 103 or so remaining inmates.
Counting positive results from before mass testing, DPS is now reporting 242 total positive cases among inmates.
The rate of infection was significantly higher during the early days of testing. On Aug. 13, 70 of 110 results reported were positive, or 64.64%.
Schwartz said that’s because “hot spot” living quarters tested first were those with the greater numbers of people showing symptoms.
Public Safety also reported that in voluntary testing among OCCC adult corrections officers and other staff, only one positive COVID-19 case was returned from the latest 49 test results. Of 306 known tests among OCCC staff, 24 came back positive, a rate of 7.84%. Out of about 500 uniformed and nonuniformed OCCC employees, 43 total positive cases have been reported, Schwartz said.
The Department of Health will conduct follow-up tests of all inmates in the coming weeks, she said.