HONOLULU (KHON2) — Investigators with the Honolulu Office of the Prosecuting Attorney are now looking into two recent deadly shootings involving Honolulu police.
It’s a major change from waiting for the police to investigate themselves, but some say it doesn’t go far enough at a time when scrutiny of police is mounting nationwide.
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Prosecutor Steve Alm says his office has already started looking into the shootings of Iremamber Sykap — a teenager shot dead after a police chase — and Lindani Myeni who was unarmed and shot after striking officers responding to a 911 call from a neighbor.
“We will proceed with an expedited but at the same time deliberate and thorough review of each of these cases and make the decision to decide whether any criminal charges are warranted,” Alm said.
He says the way it used to work could take more than a year, with the Honolulu Police Department investigating first, then handing it over to prosecutors to decide if charges are warranted.
“Whenever you have an agency that is involved in the shooting, then responsible for investigating that shooting, you are always going to have the perception among some that it’s not appropriate,” Alm said, “and thus their final conclusions and recommendations may be suspect.”
“The HPD shares the DPA’s commitment to conducting thorough, fair investigations into officer-involved shootings and will continue to cooperate with DPA investigators,” said Acting Chief Aaron Takasaki-Young. “We hope to have the opportunity to discuss the proposed changes with the DPA and his staff.”
SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu points out there are new wrinkles to iron out, such as “when they can enter the scene, because as you know, when the scene is hot, there’s a lot of evidence to be collected or be identified or whatever is happening.”
Some say the move doesn’t go far enough.
“It would be interesting to see the prosecutor say something along the lines of, you know, ‘I don’t even want to have the perception that there’s going to be a bias here so I’m going to ask a prosecutor from another jurisdiction to come over here and take a look at this,’” said ACLU Executive Director Josh Wisch, “or ‘I’m going to ask the attorney general to take a look at this.’”
“The decision by the Honolulu Department of the Prosecuting Attorney to review and conduct investigations of police involved fatal shootings is a very positive development. It illustrates how the criminal justice system can improve itself to ensure accountability – in this instance, of police officers to the public they protect,” Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors said. “The Department of the Attorney General supports this decision and will continue to work with its criminal justice partners on measures that address law enforcement concerns in our state.”
Others say oversight should come from even higher up as the rate of officer-involved civilian fatalities has spiked.
“We have five active death cases in our office right now. That’s an extraordinary number,” said attorney Eric Seitz. “Frankly, the other thing that we’re contemplating doing is writing a letter to the (U.S.) Attorney General suggesting that they really need to come in and have a federal oversight investigation as well.”
The acting U.S. Attorney in Hawaii did not respond to a request for comment. Alm says he’s stepping in because other mechanisms don’t exist right now.
“In an ideal world, it would be the best thing to have a totally independent entity set up to investigate and look into these cases,” Alm said.
One such body could be Hawaii’s Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, but it’s only ever announced a conclusion on one case. The Board can’t even start a review until police departments turn in a self-investigation; won’t disclose how many cases have been referred because by statute there’s no transparency allowed for what’s been turned in; have no subpoena authority; and they’re short of members.
“Concerns arising from the coronavirus pandemic significantly delayed the Board’s ability to review criminal investigations of incidents of officer-involved death,” explained Gary Yamahiroya of the state AG’s office, to which the Board is administratively attached. “The Board will schedule its first meeting in May. However, with the resignation of several members of the Board, additional delay is possible. Once new members are appointed, it is anticipated that the Board’s reviews will be conducted in a timely fashion.”
As for the recent shootings, Alm says HPD has turned over evidence already; they could subpoena more, but he says they already have police reports and body camera footage. They won’t be releasing those publicly, however.
“We’ll always have to be cognizant of my responsibility not to improperly influence or poison any potential jury pool,” Alm said.
“My jaw dropped when he said that,” Wisch said. “Well, it’s too late. That information already is out because HPD already selectively released it. HPD has already released information that has smeared the memory of your Iramamber Sykap. It has already released information that has smeared the memory of Lindani Myeni. It has selectively released portions of the body cam footage of the killing of Lindani Myeni and HPD said that it only released the relevant portions.”
KHON will continue to follow up as the new procedures get underway.