Lawmakers mull over proposals aimed at greater police oversight

Lawmakers mull over proposals aimed at greater police oversight
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Money for police body cameras and stricter oversight of officer-involved deaths are among the police reform measures moving ahead at the state Legislature this year.

But an effort to create statewide law enforcement standards has been seriously weakened, prompting criticism.

Lawmakers at the state Capitol said mismanagement and a number of high-profile scandals at the Honolulu Police Department have resulted in about three times as many police oversight bills being introduced this year compared to last.

"I think there's been some incidents that have been pretty well publicized and in some ways I think the way HPD has handled it has not been the best," said state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I think you've seen that on every island, where there have been some questions and I think there's a lot more interest."

An independent review board run by the state Attorney General's office -- and not police departments -- would investigate the death or serious injury of anyone in police custody under a proposal approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"It would, I think, help build the trust, knowing that we have independent eyes also looking at the work of the officers," said state Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee.

State Sen. Laura Thielen added, "Having that oversight and that Impartial body is important because it protects the police as well as giving the public more assurance that the decisions made are good decisions."

Only the Kauai Police Department has begun using body cameras. The Honolulu Police Department has said it lacks the money to outfit its officers with them. So state lawmakers have a proposal to create statewide body camera standards and offer the counties $1.3 million in matching grants to buy body cam gear.

"I do believe my colleagues understand that there are some issues and problems and concerns that we should deal with because of the growing loss of trust and faith in our officers and some of our departments and agencies," Espero said.

One measure to create statewide law enforcement training and hiring standards was amended to make those standards voluntary, which has sparked criticism.

Thielen said she doesn't think that's what the public wants.

"I think the public wants to see stronger standards, stronger accountability," she said. "But hopefully as we move through the second half of session we'll get there."

Aaron Hunger, a former police officer in Florida and California who teaches criminal justice classes at Remington College, referred to the weakened standards proposal as "a sheep in wolf's clothing."

"In other words, it promises the community something, but the language in the bill fails to give it the authority or the power to do it."

Tommy Aiu, a Hawaii News Now law enforcement expert who spent many years in federal law enforcement, said a "purely advisory" bill would make little impact.

But, he added, "maybe it's a good start so that in the future we can set up a law enforcement commission, and post standards that have some teeth."

Another more stringent standards proposal, which would have allowed a state board to certify and de-certify law enforcement officers, already died several weeks ago.

Hawaii is the only state in the country without a statewide agency that sets standards and training requirements for law enforcement officers.

Meanwhile, a bill to create a state database of the names of fired police officers could die if it's not scheduled for a hearing Thursday.

Another measure opposed by the police union to disclose the names of police officers who are disciplined and fired just like other public employees looks like it could die as lawmakers head to the halfway point of the legislative session next week.

"This year, in fact, a lot of these bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate," said Keith-Agaran, the judiciary chair whose committee is handling many of the law enforcement bills. "So it's not just an issue that's coming from one person or one legislator.  These are issues now that a lot of legislators are concerned about."

Even the proposals that are still alive have to go to the full Senate for a vote and then to the House. The bills could die or be amended during several more steps through the legislative process.

"We're hoping in the legislature we can make some positive improvements and make law enforcement overall better in our state," Espero said.

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