Hawaii Law Enforcement Standards Board behind as nation turns focus on policing

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Demonstrations across the nation continue to call for justice and reform of police practices. While Hawaii has largely avoided the kinds of incidents that make mainland headlines, Hawaii is behind on setting statewide law enforcement standards.

The Hawaii Law Enforcement Standards Board was formed years ago but just recently got its final board members approved and is behind on key tasks.

Police authority in Hawaii is vested in the most visible agencies — Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii County police departments — but also in everything from state sheriffs to DOCARE conservation officers, harbor police and the like.

“They have firearms. They’re dealing with the public. There have been many complaints about what they’ve been doing,” said Daphne Barbee-Wooten, an attorney and representative of the Hawaii African-American Lawyers Association. “You have to go through all of these hoops to find out where to complain to, and are the standards the same? So that does create a problem, different standards at different places as to what excessive force is.”

Hawaii was the last state in the nation to put together a statewide law enforcement standards board — signed into law just 2 years ago — to streamline expectations across all the islands and departments. It is already behind on training and certification standards due last July.

“Uniform standards for law enforcement are the absolute bare minimum,” said ACLU of Hawaii policy director Mandy Fernandes, “and the tip of the iceberg of reforms needed to dismantle a system of racist policing that exists in Hawaii and across the country, which has resulted in the brutal murders of black, indigenous, and people of color”

“It hasn’t been reported as much as the mainland but there do exist cases of excessive force,” Barbee-Wooten said. “True it’s nothing to the extent of what recently happened with George Floyd.”

A partial board composed of the statutory members has only met twice (statutory members are the attorney general, director of public safety, director of Transportation, chairperson of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, and chiefs of police of the four counties). The law called for 6 more gubernatorial appointees — two in law enforcement and four from the public — and the governor did not submit those names until earlier this year. Lawmakers didn’t confirm them until late May when they came back into session after the COVID closure. All of the nominees have policing backgrounds or are prosecution-oriented.

“Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Fernandes said, “and it is disappointing that Gov. Ige took this opportunity to further stack the Law Enforcement Standards Board with police and prosecutors, rather than community members who have been directly impacted by abusive policing practices.”

“It’s not a wide diversity, it doesn’t represent the whole general public, it’s excluding people who may know of actual cases of abuse, excluding people who know the law on excessive force,” Barbee-Wooten said. “It invites the board to just be another rubber stamp. If you really want an effective board, you’re going to put in members who have all different points of views and expertise in the matter.

The governor’s office told Always Investigating that the core board members recommended the new additions and that he just picked from their list.

“The board will be better able to carefully consider the existing laws, rules and agreements because of its better-resourced, larger and more operationally flexible board,” Ige’s spokesperson said in a statement. “This should result in better standards, certification and training requirements and thereby increase public confidence in law enforcement and improve public safety generally.”

The governor’s office also put in a pending bill to stretch some deadlines to summer 2023, allow more flexibility in appointments and to allow service without senate consent.

While the statewide board gets to work, it is left to each department and county commission to oversee. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell faces pressing appointments to the Honolulu Police Commission following the resignations of Steven Levinson and Loretta Sheehan plus a prior vacancy.

Caldwell told KHON2 in a statement: “I’d rather not speculate as to actions that might be taken by the recently confirmed Law Enforcement Standards Board members. But I do know the police commissioners currently serving, along with those we’ll be nominating, will reflect the diverse views of the citizens of the City and County of Honolulu, and in working with Chief Ballard will bring balance and transparency at the Honolulu Police Department.”

FULL STATEMENT OF GOVERNOR IGE: The Governor’s legislative package included SB2849. The bill was intended to provide the Law Enforcement Standards Board the ability to effectively carry out its responsibilities. If that bill is passed, the Governor has every expectation this board will be a success.

As for the nominee selection process: The current Law Enforcement Standards Board members determined that increasing the size of the board and allowing ex-officio members to use designees will expand the perspective of the board while increasing its operational flexibility. The existing Board members made recommendations for the new members, which were compiled and provided to the Governor. The Governor chose from this list. The Board will be better able to carefully consider the existing laws, rules and agreements because of its better-resourced, larger, and more operationally flexible board. This should result in better standards, certification, and training requirements and thereby increase public confidence in law enforcement and improve public safety generally.

FULL STATEMENT OF ACLU OF HAWAII, Mandy Fernandes, policy director:

Two years have passed since the Legislature created the Law Enforcement Standards Board. Hawai’i was the last state in the nation to adopt a standards board, so it is especially disappointing that the Board has met only twice since its creation and has failed to finalize standards and a certification process by the required deadline of July 1, 2019.

For too long, police have operated in Hawaii with little oversight or accountability. The root of the problem–and we are not immune here in Hawa’ii–is racism, white supremacy, police violence, and a lack of accountability. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery follow generations of anti-black violence at the hands of police officers. Uniform standards for law enforcement are the absolute bare minimum and the tip of the iceberg of reforms needed to dismantle a system of racist policing that exists in Hawaii and across the country, which has resulted in the brutal murders of black, indigenous, and people of color.

In Hawaii, those experiencing houselessness are also routinely harassed by police. Despite this, houseless folks are expected to trust the police, who handle certain outreach efforts and are tasked with running quarantine tents for the houseless through the City and County of Honolulu’s Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage program. The police have an immense amount of authority over tasks that would be more appropriate in the hands of other government agencies or community partners. The public deserves accountability, and for that we need to replace our existing system of unfettered deference to police with one that checks police power and fosters full transparency. Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and it is disappointing that Governor Ige took this opportunity to further stack the Law Enforcement Standards Board with police and prosecutors, rather than community members who have been directly impacted by abusive policing practices. Now is not the time to continue business as usual. We must put police funding under a microscope, scrutinize police department expenditures, and find new ways to redirect funds into communities.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.