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Lawsuit accuses Honolulu police of abusing power

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A federal lawsuit was filed Monday against the City and County of Honolulu and its police department alleging abuse of power stemming from an incident two years ago in which an officer arrested a 15-year-old boy who had been fighting with the officer’s son.

The civil rights suit, filed in U.S. District Court by Jennifer and Jorge Rivera on behalf of their son, J.R, alleges the boy was arrested at his high school, shackled by his hands and feet and then put in a locked cell one day after he had gotten into a fight with the arresting officer’s son.

The officer, Kirk Uemura, would go on to intimidate and harass the boy after the Riveras filed a disciplinary complaint with the department, according to the suit.

Among other things, the suit alleges abuse of power, multiple violations of the boy’s Constitutional rights and a lack of a Hono­lulu Police Department policy that prevents the type of misconduct and conflict of interest that occurred in this case.

In a press conference Monday, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and other firms representing the plaintiffs said the lawsuit seeks to end what they called HPD’s unchecked practice of letting police officers abuse their powers for personal purposes.

“Unfortunately, the circumstances that gave rise to this complaint are not a one-off. They are just the latest example of a pattern and practice by HPD that regularly condones misuse of police powers,” said Joshua Wisch, executive director of the ACLU of Hawaii.

According to the complaint, J.R. was being bullied by the HPD officer’s son, and one day in November 2018, J.R. was forced to fight the officer’s son at school.

The next day, Uemura showed up at J.R.’s school, and — in full view of teachers and students — interrogated J.R. and arrested him with the help of another uniformed officer and without reading his rights or notifying his parents until nearly 90 minutes later, the complaint said.

As a result of the incident, J.R. and his parents suffered emotional trauma and distress, according to the complaint, with the trauma worsening as Uemura’s repeatedly appeared at the boy’s school after the family filed a disciplinary complaint.

J.R. ended up transferring to a new school, where Uemura also appeared on one occasion and “locked eyes with him,” which the family considered an intimidation tactic.

“This situation was outrageous and was a complete mess for our family,” said Jennifer Rivera, adding that her son had to repeat 9th grade and get therapy. “It’s been two years of ups and downs with him, trying to get him back on track, and it’s just been a disaster for us.”

Jongwook “Wookie” Kim, ACLU staff attorney, said HPD is one of the few major police departments nationwide that does not have a policy of prohibiting officers from investigating or arresting people with whom they have personal, family or close relationships.

The HPD’s Code of Ethics does contain this line: “I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships to influence my decisions.”

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said an administrative investigation took place shortly after the incident occurred, and disciplinary action was taken this year. Asked about the punishment, Yu said she was “still trying to confirm this.”

Uemura, a corporal and 21-year veteran, is assigned to the patrol district in Windward Oahu, she said.

Kim said HPD should be up front about what discipline was administered in this and other cases.

“We need transparency in the police disciplinary process to restore trust, accountability and legitimacy to police departments statewide,” Kim said.

The complaint accuses HPD of having a de facto policy of permitting officers to selectively enforce the law and abuse their power in connection with personal matters. It details a string of abuses, including those involving former Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who used HPD officers to target his own family members to further his personal and financial interests.

The complaint also names another officer, now retired Sgt. Artie Kendall, who when asked by the parents at police station what right Uemura had to arrest their son, he pointed to his badge and said, “This does.”

The suit asks the court to declare J.R.’s arrest unconstitutional, require HPD to enact adequate policies and procedures to prevent conflicts of interest, to expunge the boy’s criminal records and award damages to the family.

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