Maui police deny claims officers used excessive force during Haleakala protest

Activist: Maui police used excessive force despite peaceful protest
Published: Aug. 3, 2017 at 1:51 AM HST|Updated: Aug. 3, 2017 at 9:41 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
Henderson wedges himself under a semi-truck during the protest. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Henderson wedges himself under a semi-truck during the protest. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

MAKAWAO, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some are claiming that Maui officers used excessive force during a protest of the controversial Haleakala telescope project, and are pointing to cell phone video circulating online as evidence of their charges.

Six people were arrested Wednesday morning for disorderly conduct, obstructing a highway, failing to obey a police officer and resisting arrest during the protest, in which participants attempted to block a construction convoy from delivering parts to the summit of Haleakala for construction of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope.

Opponents of the telescope project say they're standing in protection of the mountain as a sacred Native Hawaiian place and committed to holding themselves in Kapu Aloha with non-violent direct action demonstration.

Video of one arrest has some claiming Maui police officers used excessive force, despite a peaceful demonstration, and it's drawing a lot of criticism on social media after the man appears to go unconscious.

But on Thursday, Maui police shot back at the claims, saying that the man in the video resisted arrest and that officers did what they're trained to do.

According to the MPD, Prais was initially restrained but later broke free "and dove under the trailer of the truck as it was moving."

Police then say they took Prais to the ground, prompting him to "tuck his hands under his body ... causing officers to forcibly restrain him and pull his arm's free."

But in the video, protester Kai Prais can be heard wailing and screaming for help as he's surrounded by Maui police officers. It also records another protester yelling at officers: "Get off his head! He can't breathe!"

"To me it was overkill on how they retrained him. I know the cops were doing their job but we were also doing our job," said Kaukaohu Wahilani, who was next to Prais before he was arrested.

The footage was taken by Jade Chihara, who arrived on the scene after officers had already put Prais in handcuffs. Friends say an officer's knee was jammed into his head. At this time, it's unclear why Prais had to be so forcefully restrained -- but at some point, he stops screaming and becomes unresponsive.

Another video posted on Facebook shows protesters asking Prais, "Can you hear us? Kai, are you OK?"

A crowd starts to gather around and one protester starts asking police officers who are standing near Prais as he lays unresponsive on the ground, "Where is the ambulance? Why is the ambulance not here yet? It's supposed to be here before you start. That's an aggressive assault."

Several different cell phone videos taken by protesters at various angles show Prais laying on the pavement, not moving. At one point, a few officers appear to bend down to check Prais' vitals -- but he isn't moved and he remains with his hands cuffed behind his back.

The crowd around Prais begins to grow more vocal demanding that officers remove Prais handcuffs. "Take the handcuffs off," one person shouts. "Who's in charge? Take the handcuffs off," another person can be heard saying.

At first, the Maui police officers don't respond -- but eventually, an officer replies, "We've made the decision. It's not coming off. That's the decision."

Chihara, who took the video of Prais screaming for help, says re-watching it is sickening and she felt a lot of internal conflict about posting it on Facebook -- but she shared it so that people would know what happened.

"It's such a sad and scary moment -- just you can feel all the energy from it. But people need to see it," Chihara said. "It was kind of disheartening -- the whole overall experience and what we were met with -- just the numbers, the gear, and the use of force. They put a man unconscious."

At least 15 minutes passes before an ambulance arrives to take Prais away. Despite consistent pleas from protesters, officers on the scene decided not to remove Prais' handcuffs until he was loaded onto the paramedics stretcher.

Eyewitnesses say at this point, tensions between opponents of the project and police officers escalated quickly. But the protest didn't start off that way.

The clash between officers and protesters was something both sides had prepared for.

At the height of the demonstration, approximately 200 people had gathered in Makawao and more than 60 law enforcement officers were on site. In addition to attempting to speak with protesters individually, Maui police officers made multiple announcements via loud speakers -- in both English and Hawaiian -- asking the crowd to peacefully disperse and allow the construction convoy to pass through.

Several protesters chose not to comply with the officers orders.

More than a dozen opponents of the telescope project -- whose arms where linked together through steel and PVC pipe --  laid down across the highway to block the construction convoy as it approached.

Their effort temporarily stalled construction crews, but rather than cut through the pipe and take people into custody, Maui police instead lifted them out of the way clearing just enough of a path to allow the convoy to pass through. It was at that point that several protesters crawled under the tractor trailers to prevent them from moving -- and only then did police officers start making arrests.

A joint statement sent out by the state land department and Maui police Wednesday afternoon did not address questions as to how Prais was injured but did say: "Police officers gently lifted the prone protesters to the highway's shoulder to give the big rigs enough turning radius. One man who was arrested was taken to the emergency room before being booked."

SHOPO President Tenari Maafala said he watched the video and disagrees with those who argue it shows police brutality.

"I don't think it was excessive use of force. From what I saw, it was minimal use of force in terms of maintaining the peace -- and first and foremost the important thing is the safety and well-being of both the protesters and the drivers and those who are responsible in taking the equipment for the telescope to Haleakala," said Maafala.

Maafala also believes officers made the right call by not removing Prais' handcuffs.

"Once the cuffs are on the person is under arrest already. We monitor them to make sure the person is okay and whatever necessary force is used to subdue the individual. I don't know the full extent of what transpired after that part, but the officers were well within what they're trained to do and well within their actions. They acted appropriate and in a right arrest," said Maafala.

The convoy eventually reached the work site where the Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope will be. It will be the largest of its kind in the world when it opens in 2020.

Hawaii News Now has reached out to the project developers for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, but they have declined interview requests. However, this statement was posted on their website Wednesday afternoon: "It is our hope that we can work together while respectful of one another's differences and mutually revere these gifts from nature."

Gov. David Ige responded to the protest by saying, "It's unfortunate that there were arrests made. But we continue to look for providing a safe access for those projects that are appropriately permitted."

Prais was treated for a concussion at Maui Memorial Hospital and has since been released.

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