Rebuilding anything requires first laying a strong foundation — a principle that applies just as much when rebuilding public trust as it does in a physical structure.
The relationship between the Honolulu Police Department and the community has come under considerable strain in recent weeks, even beyond the damage done in recent years in scandals involving both HPD and the city Department of the Prosecuting Attorney.
Two officer-involved shootings occurring only days apart, in which a 16-year-old boy and then a 29-year-old man were killed in unrelated incidents, have shaken Honolulu. It’s against that backdrop that city Prosecutor Steven Alm has drawn the correct conclusion: Establishing a firm foundation for trust demands external oversight of police practices that an independent investigation by his office could accomplish.
On Thursday, Alm held a news conference to underscore his public-trust pledge at the start of his term and specifically to announce that two separate teams of city prosecutors and investigators each would do an independent review of the shootings.
This is a needed departure from the established protocol in which HPD conducts an internal investigation of fatal shootings by a police officer and then forwards conclusions and recommendations to the prosecutors. Alm said that process often takes an entire year.
Alm said he wasn’t throwing shade on HPD internal reviews of the past, or on his predecessor’s decisions on these recommendations. But he said his administration is taking a new approach to improve oversight when a civilian is killed by police, to avoid the perception that the cases were not being reviewed with enough objectivity.
That is the right move, and at precisely the right time. The April 5 killing of Iremamber Sykap, 16, was the culmination of a chase following a crime spree that ended on Kalakaua Avenue. On April 14, a 911 call after 29-year-old Lindani Myeni entered a Nuuanu home led to a confrontation and his shooting death.
All of this happened while the nation was riveted by the trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in the high-profile killing of George Floyd. This intensified the shock locally among citizens already apprehensive about both the police and prosecutor’s office, with the Kealoha scandal still visible in the rear-view mirror.
The 2019 corruption convictions of Louis and Katherine Kealoha, the former police chief and deputy prosecutor, left the public disillusioned about the operations and independence of those agencies, which both became entwined in the scandals.
Alm said body-camera video and other evidence from the Sykap and Myeni incidents will be kept confidential until the investigations are concluded.
That is defensible, of course, as long as there is full disclosure upon completion of the inquiries. On Friday, HPD released the 911 recording from the Nuuanu incident, following the earlier dispatch of some body-cam footage.
By contrast, no body-cam video of the Sykap teen shooting has been released, with HPD officials citing the involvement of minors as a reason. Surely there could be measures taken, such as digitized-blurring of faces, to address that.
Ultimately, transparency will be essential to resolution: There’s been enough data released to put police practices in some doubt. HPD itself has convened a panel to review its use-of-force policy and has adopted a new policy promoting de-escalation techniques.
Alm and his team must move swiftly to see that these disturbing episodes are brought to closure. Making course corrections in Honolulu’s criminal justice system will be a daunting task, but clarifying how police properly use force undeniably is where that work must start.
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