HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - On July 17, Honolulu and Maui police officers with batons, helmets and pepper spray arrived at the TMT protest camp at the base of Mauna Kea.
It was the third day of the Thirty Meter Telescope protest, and about 1,000 people were there.
Sgt. James “Kimo” Smith, a 35-year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department, was on the front lines and says the high altitude made it especially challenging.
“It was very trying if I could use that word,” said Smith, who’s with HPD’s Crime Reduction Unit, is treasurer of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and is Native Hawaiian.
By the time police arrived, state land officers had already arrested 38 people, mostly kupuna. In all, there were 56 Honolulu and 27 Maui officers.
They took orders from the state and Big Island police, according to SHOPO.
Officers say their orders were to clear the road as a human blockade of women grew to about 150 ― all prepared to be arrested.
“I believe from the front line of ladies with their arms locked, an expectation that they were going to be arrested that day. There was some understanding that that was going to occur,” said Smith.
But around 4:15 p.m., officers were suddenly told to retreat.
“It was still unclear as the direction to which we were moving," Smith said.
“We were going to clear the road that day and for whatever reason information that filtered between the command personnel on site did not come back down to us on the road. At some point, the decision was made to have us depart.”
Smith’s version of events sheds light on one of the most emotional days of the conflict, and raises new questions about the government response in the wake of the arrests.
“The ultimate decision was made by Hawaiʻi County Police Department with the support of unified command,” said Governor Ige’s office in a statement on Tuesday.
The statement added, “multiple factors were considered when making the decision, most importantly, officer and protester safety.”
SHOPO president Sgt. Malcolm Lutu says the reason state law enforcement deviated from the plan is still unclear. He thinks it’s political.
"I think if they kept to the original plan, it probably would have been solved already," said Lutu.
Despite high emotions, officers say the protest was peaceful. When asked about the narrative of excessive force, officers say they respond according to training.
"There wouldn't be excessive force unless it was shown against us," said Lutu.
Lutu added that police are prepared to go back to Mauna Kea to help Hawaii County officers if asked.
“They are so short. They had the volcano last year. They lost an officer last year. I was hoping, to me it was about time that some of us, especially Honolulu with our manpower, can go and help,” said Lutu.
In the wake of the arrests, the governor issued an emergency proclamation for Mauna Kea. He subsequently withdrew it, saying the situation had changed.
Meanwhile, SHOPO says it’s looking into reports that there was only one tow truck available the day of the arrests. Ige’s office said tow truck capability was available. Other officers complained about their living conditions including lack of food.