Watch out, because the state Legislature is actually on track to doing the right thing in regards to making public the names of bad cops. There have been so many fruitless attempts to undo the disaster that was the 1995 state law exempting police officers from the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act that I’m hesitant to write about this latest move. But given some slightly promising early signs, I’ll make an exemption.
It’s called Senate Bill 3016, and 11 senators introduced it, including Senators J. Kalani English, D–East Maui, and Roz Baker, D–South Maui. It would allow the “disclosure of government records in cases where a police officer has been suspended or discharged in a disciplinary action.” Indeed, the text is rather hard-hitting:
“Recent media reports by the Honolulu Star Advertiser and Honolulu Civil Beat detail a former Honolulu police officer who was discharged by the Honolulu police department for criminal acts, then hired by the department of land and natural resources. That officer continued to commit criminal acts while on duty with the department of land and natural resources. Full public disclosure of his record while at the Honolulu police department could have prevented his employment at department of land and natural resources.”
Opinion in regards to the bill has, so far, been solidly in support. Here are are few of those who provided testimony to the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs (PSM), which held a hearing on the bill on Feb. 4:
“All this measure seeks to do is require police transparency. Police officers hold a special place in the public trust and should be held accountable for their actions.” – Rob Viela
“The police need to be held to a higher standard, where the public, which they interface with on a daily basis, knows about disciplinary actions. This information should not be kept in a black box.” -Lynn Matusow
“Police officers should be accountable for their actions while protecting the public.” – Shane H.
“Police officers are able to view our records when stopped, we should be able to view an officer’s record as well.” – Jordan R.
“I am strongly in support of this bill and agree that police officers that abuse their authority and do wrong need to be exposed and their identifies need to be made public like any other state or public service worker. No one is above the law.” – Harry Yoshida
Of course, one voice is standing against the bill: The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO)–the all-powerful police union that lobbied the Legislature hard back in 1994-1995 to bring us the so-called “SHOPO Exemption” (click here to read my 2011 story detailing how this happened).
In a Feb. 4 letter to the Senate PSM Committee, SHOPO President Tenari Ma`afala gave three reasons why his organization hates the bill. The first was, by far, the funniest.
“This very issue of release of information on police officer suspensions is before the Hawaii Supreme Court,” Ma`afala wrote. “Oral arguments took place on June 18, 2015 and thus, we expect a decision at any time. It would be both prudent and wise to await the Court’s opinion.”
Ha! SHOPO wasn’t willing to wait on the Supreme Court to rule on the naming of disciplined cops back in the mid-1990s, when a group of University of Hawaii journalism students wound up in court trying to get the records. Rather than wait for the decision, SHOPO bankrolled a massive lobbying campaign on the Legislature, which is what created the exemption in the first place.
Ma`afala’s second reason–that the Legislature already “receives annual misconduct reports from each of the four county police departments”–is meaningless. Those reports contain neither names nor any specific details on the incidents of discipline. They also don’t tell citizens if disciplined cops have been busted before.
Lastly, Ma`afala fell back on the most insulting reason to keep the names of busted cops secret:
“Finally, release of officers’ names that have been suspended may have a chilling effect on the extent of action taken by officers who often have to make split second decisions,” Ma`afala wrote. “It impacts not only the officers but their families, too.”
Spare me. How on earth does the public knowing which cops were busted for stealing out of the evidence locker or for lying on their reports impact their ability to make “split second decisions?”
Though Ma`afala added that “Though other employees are subject to release of their names for suspensions, rarely, if ever, does that happen because of the level of news worthiness,” but at this point, he’s just phoning it in. Cops carry firearms and trained to use deadly force. The need to know which cops have been disciplined goes far beyond mere “newsworthiness”–it cuts to the heart of public safety.
The Senate PSM committee seemed to agree–at their Feb. 4 hearing, they voted 4-0 to pass the bill, though with amendments (Though Senator Baker is on that committee, she was excused from the vote). That means the bill’s still alive, though the state legislative website currently has no information on what happens next to it.