Shaking off the surprise that the Honolulu prosecuting attorney pursued indictments of three officers in connection with the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old in April, police union officials hailed an Oahu grand jury’s decision to decline criminal charges as reinforcing the officers’ actions and decision-making.
It was the first time in more than 40 years that a county prosecutor believed a fatal police shooting to be unjustified and sought indictments against officers, according to union officials. The fact that separate police investigations are open and ongoing into the alleged crime spree and stolen car that Iremamber Sykap was driving April 5 when officers opened fire, and the actions taken by the officers involved, made the appeal to a grand jury unexpected.
The officers who faced the potential charges are relieved, said State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers President Malcolm Lutu.
“We found out when the media found out about the grand jury. We didn’t know what went forward, what was presented to the grand jury. It was all from the prosecutor’s office,” said Lutu, speaking to reporters Thursday at SHOPO headquarters on Hoe Street. “The last few months have been a trying time for our law enforcement officers. These incidents not only affect the victim’s families, but all of our officers who are involved. As I said before, I understand and trust the process. I especially trust the training that we go through to prepare our officers for these types of situations. Part of the process is an internal investigation by our department, which is still ongoing. But as far as (Wednesday’s) grand jury, our officers’ decision-making and actions were reinforced by the no-bill verdict.”
Through a spokesman, Prosecuting Attorney Steven S. Alm declined to comment on SHOPO’s statements or answer questions about what evidence motivated his office to seek criminal charges against the officers or what charges they sought. Alm’s office did not respond Thursday to a request by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for the transcripts from the grand jury proceedings, body-worn camera footage or any of the evidence used to make their case.
Lutu said the union was trying to learn more about what evidence was turned over to the grand jury and how it was presented.
When asked whether SHOPO planned to meet with Alm to learn more about why he elected to pursue indictments against the three officers, Lutu replied, “We plan to meet with the chief and our department.”
Union officials urged members of the public who were quick to condemn the officers as criminals after the fatal shooting to pause, reflect on the grand jury’s decision and appreciate that officers make quick, life-and-death decisions in extraordinary circumstances, all to maintain public safety.
“Since the day of this initial incident, SHOPO and the Honolulu chapter of SHOPO has been closely observing how the matter was treated by the Honolulu Police Department, the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office and the media. Although it was unprecedented that the officers in that matter were subjected to a possible grand jury indictment (Wednesday), the decision made by that jury reinforces the actions of our member officers,” said Nicholas Schlapak, a patrol officer and SHOPO’s Honolulu chapter chairman, speaking to reporters Thursday. “The totality of the circumstances were obviously taken into account, rather than misleading sensationalism on the part of private litigators, unnecessary political pressure or snap judgments made by individual reactions to snippet footage of a single body-worn camera that was leaked to the public for unknown reasons. Despite all of that, the facts have been presented, and a decision has been made accordingly.”
In April, Alm started independent investigations by prosecutors of shootings by police for the first time in more than 30 years and promised a thorough and expeditious probe. Less than two months later Alm found the shooting unjustified, and prosecutors presented evidence to a grand jury.
Attorney Eric A. Seitz, who is representing Sykap’s grandmother and mother in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, HPD and the officers involved, said despite the grand jury’s decision, neither the the office of the prosecuting attorney nor the corporation counsel responded to requests for evidence Thursday. Seitz is seeking the autopsy findings from the medical examiner, body-worn camera footage, police reports, transcripts and recordings of radio transmissions during the incident and other evidence.
Seitz is asking Alm to release the transcripts detailing what jurors considered Wednesday.
“It’s really bizarre. We have no confidence in the (prosecutors’) investigation. If the (police) investigations are not done, what did the grand jury see? What was provided to them that led them to make a knowledgeable decision? We don’t know that,” Seitz told the Star-Advertiser. “This kind of thing happens on the mainland — like the Breonna Taylor case. The prosecutor doesn’t want to take the heat of whether to prosecute or not, so the grand jury can make the decision; then he can turn around and say they refused to indict. It’s a secret proceeding; no one can look over their shoulders and say whether they tanked it or not. We need to look at the transcripts of what took place in light of the lack of transparency up until now. The transcripts need to be made public.”
Taylor was unarmed and shot and killed by Louisville, Ky., police officers in her home in March 2020. Only one of the officers was indicted for a crime, three counts of wanton endangerment after bullets from his weapon allegedly entered an apartment next to Taylor’s. A judge ordered the grand jury transcripts and recordings in the Taylor case be made public in October.
If prosecutors and city attorneys continue to hold back evidence, Seitz said he will appeal to a judge and ask for court orders compelling the city to turn over evidence.
“The mayor ought to come out and demand all this information be released,” said Seitz. “There is no reason it can’t and should not be released.”
It appears the last time a Honolulu police officer was indicted for a shooting by police was during President Jimmy Carter’s administration and Mayor Frank Fasi’s first term, in June 1979.
According to the July 12, 1979, issue of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Patrolman Arthur Freedle, 29 at the time, with 10 years of service, was indicted for manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Aaron Yong Kim in April 1979. Kim was killed when Freedle’s pistol discharged while he was arguing with Kim and others about traffic citations issued to a group of people on Diamond Head Road.
The city prosecutor’s office initially ruled the shooting accidental, according to the Star-Bulletin, but later reopened the case after outcry from Korean community groups and Korean media. Freedle was indicted after the prosecutors presented evidence to a grand jury.
Lutu said he believes the majority of people support the police and that a small, vocal minority, aided by the media, blows any perceived bad act out of proportion before understanding the circumstances or seeing all the evidence. That makes recruiting police officers in Honolulu and across the nation difficult, he said, as does an increase in violence against officers.
Lutu said an HPD officer is attacked almost daily and that it rarely, if ever, makes the news.
Every county in Hawaii needs more officers, and Honolulu is about 300 short, he said, and the increasing cost of living is driving more potential recruits and veteran officers to the mainland. The job is not for everyone, he said, and SHOPO and HPD are committed to finding the best possible metropolitan police recruits.
“There is no question about our commitment to our communities. Our officers have given their lives for these communities that we protect. Tell me what profession does that and gets pounded by the media and keyboard warriors out there for doing our jobs protecting you,” he said. “We are committed to our duties and will continue to do the best job we can protecting our communities that we live in.”