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Police Commission nominee denies racism exists in Hawaii

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s second attempt to fill the final vacancy on the Honolulu Police Commission was met with near unanimous opposition Wednesday as opponents cited concerns about the nominee’s record as a police officer and his career in private security while the candidate said he does not believe racial discrimination exists in Hawaii.

Larry Ignas’ denial of racism came while communities around the country debate ways to eliminate racism and discrimination from policing.

Fourteen out of 17 people who submitted written testimony and all five who testified remotely were opposed to Ignas serving as the seventh member of the Police Commission.

During the Honolulu City Council meeting, Councilwoman Esther Kia‘aina pointed out that the discrimination and racial disparities local people deal with is different from the mainland. She asked Ignas about his experience dealing with Native Hawaiians, the Micronesian community and other underserved, over-policed groups, saying that people think of Hawaii as a place of racial harmony and that could not be further from the truth.

“Do you acknowledge that racial discrimination exists in Hawaii?,” asked Kia‘aina, as Ignas, 77, who is white, stood before the Council.

“I have never seen any,” Ignas, replied. “I don’t see any discrimination in Hawaii not like back in the mainland,” said Ignas, who founded the private security firm Star Protection Agency and later ran United Security Alarms. He highlighted his experience as an employer and said he treats employees from all backgrounds equally and has not witnessed discrimination in 34 years of living in Hawaii.

“I hired all different nationalities. I treated them all as equal as I am,” Ignas said. “I wish I had known about all this. I would have brought some with me to testify.”

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who attended the Council meeting but did not testify on behalf of Ignas, declined to answer questions from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, including whether he shares Ignas’ beliefs on racial discrimination or what he knew of Ignas’ disciplinary record as an East Chicago, Ind., police officer.

After the public hearing, Council members referred Ignas’ nomination to the City Council Committee on Public Safety for further review.

“It was anticipated the nomination would go to committee where the Council members will have additional time to get to know Mr. Ignas. Mayor Blangiardi continues to support his nominee,” said Tim Sakahara, the Mayor’s communications director.

Councilwoman Radiant Cordero wants Blangiardi to pull Ignas’ nomination and plans to vote no.

“I want him to come to my communities; to my Council district where I have the most public housing of any Council district throughout the state … and tell them there’s no racial discrimination. It’s upsetting,” Cordero told the Star-Advertiser. “My community has felt the effects of racial profiling and discrimination and that’s why community policing is such a priority. His comments are out of touch and we need a police commissioner that can represent not just those who know what the job entails or worked with HPD, but who comes from disproportionately marginalized communities.”

City Council Chairman Tommy Waters agreed with Cordero and referred to HPD’s own annual use of force report, which revealed that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — who make up 25% of Oahu’s population — were the subject in more than a third of the incidents involving police use of force in 2019. Hawaii residents who are Black or part-Black, and represent only 4.3% of Honolulu’s population, were subject of the use of force in 7.4% of incidents.

“Mr. Ignas’ comments were insensitive, offensive and frankly, ignorant,” Waters told the Star-Advertiser. “At a time when there is a clear need to rebuild trust between HPD and our community, we need commissioners that are aware and cognizant of the challenges HPD faces and are willing to hold the new chief accountable.”

Cordero later posted a story to her Instagram account declaring her opposition to Ignas’ appointment and urging the public to ask the mayor to withdraw his name from further Council consideration.

Past experience

Ignas’ only prior board experience in Hawaii was a 2018 term on the Motor Vehicle Industry Licensing Board. In response to a question from Councilwoman Andria Tupola about his experience and familiarity working with underserved groups or minorities in Hawaii or on the mainland, Ignas acknowledged he does not have much experience. He said he worked with the homeless in Chicago and Honolulu.

“Every time we have a problem at the Alakea Corporate Towers, I do help the homeless, as best we can,” said Ignas, who is general manger of the corporate office space. “We don’t just shag them out. We try to take care of them and put them in places they can go.”

Ignas was a police officer in East Chicago, Ind., until 1989, according The Times newspaper in Munster, Ind. Ignas “narrowly escaped death” while helping to break up a robbery on Nov. 6, 1970, when one of two men held a knife to his throat, leaving a laceration after he ran away.

On July 2, 1983, Ignas, then 39, crashed his patrol car into a parked vehicle on Columbus Drive in East Chicago and was taken to St. Catherine Hospital, according to The Times. A month later, he was suspended for 28 days after investigators determined he “used poor judgement” and did not receive permission to travel outside of his patrol district.

Public opposition

The theme of the public opposition submitted to the Council centered in part on his police record and a desire to have a community representative on the commission who hails from groups disproportionately affected by policing practices in Hawaii, namely Native Hawaiians, Micronesian and Blacks. Opponents also questioned whether a former police officer should oversee Honolulu police.

“The little we know of Mr Ignas is that he was a police office for 20 years in East Chicago, Indiana, with some questions about his judgement (28 days suspension for wrecking a squad car). He then ran security and alarm companies before becoming a property manager. In other words it seems his life’s work has been disproportionately focused on one aspect of policing — protection of property. There is no evidence of post high school education, any experience in investigating complaints against the police, any concern with or knowledge of systemic racism in policing, militarization of police forces in the United States, excessive police use of force, lethal police shootings,” wrote Louis G. Herman, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu who testified as a private citizen. “Has Mr. Ignas ever been an advocate for the community at large? For marginalized groups? Does he have any knowledge of or experience with our vulnerable communities, the mentally ill, homeless, Pacific Islanders, victims of domestic violence. Has he ever filed a complaint against any police officer or police department? Until we have satisfactory answers to these questions, Mr Ignas’ nomination should not be considered.”

Carla Allison questioned whether Ignas’ police experience may not fit with current police practices.

“So much has changed around policing since he last served as an officer in 1989. While the mayor has clearly stated his desire to have a commissioner with policing experience, would we really be best served by a person whose policing experience is over 30 years old,” asked Allison, in testimony submitted to the City Council. “From the resume Ignas submitted, there is nothing to indicate that he has worked directly with those in our community who are disproportionately impacted by policing. Please tell the mayor to try again.”

Jill Baptist submitted testimony in favor of Ignas, praising his policing experience and work securing corporate spaces.

“As the general manager of Alakea Corporate Tower, Larry has made security a priority for the building, its tenants and visitors. He has trained his team to be vigilant and mindful of potential dangers surrounding the building. Larry understands the challenges to keep his tenants safe and his proactive instincts are attributable to his 20-year service with the Chicago police department,” she wrote.

Ignas is Blangiardi’s second nominee to fill the last seat on the Police Commission.

Benjamin Mahi, a former HPD officer and current First Hawaiian Bank security officer, withdrew his nomination after questions arose about a suspension for mishandling a crime scene while on the force and concerns that his partner of 21 years, a current HPD lieutenant, created a conflict of interest for him if he were to serve on the commission. As an officer Mahi appealed his suspension and it was overturned, according to police and city officials.

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