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The push for police reform has become a national issue with such momentum that, at least in Hawaii, the tide has turned in favor of a provision open-government advocates have sought for years: disclosure of police officers’ identity upon suspension or discharge as a disciplinary action.
House Bill 285, up for a final vote, would provide for such disclosure to the Legislature and would give the public access to information about suspended officers as well. This bill should pass and be enacted by Gov. David Ige without delay.
It is long overdue that this degree of transparency be demanded of all Hawaii’s county police departments, as it is of every other state and county employee.
Existing law requires that officers who are discharged be identified, but HB 285 rightly extends the requirement to those suspended as well. Even among law enforcement agencies, only county police departments have this privilege. This has been a longstanding unfairness for years, and it’s good that support has aligned behind correcting it now.
Without a doubt, the uprising over the killing of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man, as well as of other Black victims at the hands of police, has changed the conversation around excessive use of force by law enforcement within communities of color. Hawaii has been swept up in that conversation, and in the demonstrations and marches that became its primary expression.
And even if this state is not beset with the same kind of racial tension that flares in the law-enforcement context as many mainland population centers, the islands have their share of trouble. The abuse of power uncovered in the case of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha underscores that reality.
Whatever the concern with its police departments, Hawaii will benefit from opening them to more sunshine.
In HB 285, as amended by the House-Senate conference committee, police departments would be required to disclose the identity of suspended officers in their annual reports to the Legislature starting in 2021.
Also, if enacted, the effective date of the law would be set at March 1, 2020, meaning that citizens would be able to ask police departments for information on officers suspended after that date. The bill does not specify the process of making that request, but police departments should make the information readily accessible.
Keeping police records open has been an aim for more than 15 years. In 1993, after the University of Hawaii student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sought police disciplinary records, the courts upheld the public right to know and rejected claims by the police union that constitutional privacy protections should prevail.
So the union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, in 1995 successfully got the exception for police officers in statute. In a recent commentary published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu said HB 285 would not prevent police misconduct and that fear of public disclosure would hinder recruitment.
But the purpose isn’t merely deterrence of wrongdoing, it’s citizen awareness of problems, leading to pressure from those citizens to correct them.
Police do have a difficult job requiring split-second decisions, which do lead to mistakes. These can be fairly weighed by police themselves, in inquiries judged by professional standards, before decisions are made.
But once they are, for discipline as severe as suspension or discharge, these are public servants who are meant to be accountable to the public. HB 285 offers one way to fend off a culture of secrecy, one that leads to an unhealthy mistrust of police by the very people they are sworn to protect.