Officer misconduct bill stalls in conference committee

KAILUA-KONA — A measure that would have disclosed the names of officers discharged or suspended from a county police department died quietly in conference last week.

House Bill 285 was not reported out of conference committee by Tuesday, missing the deadline to file the notice required for a final vote by both chambers of the state Legislature before the 2019 session closes today.

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The proposal would have required police chiefs in Hawaii’s four counties to disclose in annual reports to the state Legislature the identity of an officer who was suspended or discharged from their departments. In its most recent form, the information would have been included in the 2021 report.

Currently, the report submitted annually to the Legislature outlines misconduct, discipline and whether the grievance procedure has concluded; however, there’s no disclosure of identity.

Introduced by Rep. Scott Nishimoto, an Oahu Democrat, HB 285 was supported by various groups, media and individuals, including the state Office of Information Practices, Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter, American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the union representing officers throughout the four counties, and a handful of individuals opposed the legislation.

“It was unfair for our officers and all officers’ families,” said police union president Malcolm Lutu on Wednesday.

He iterated the union’s position throughout this legislative session that releasing suspended officers’ names will not increase accountability, adding most suspensions are “administrative suspensions” for things such as turning in reports late, tardiness and not having proper equipment.

The disclosure of names of terminated officers, who completed the grievance procedure, is already permitted. While they are not included in the annual report, they can be requested. An officer arrested and/or charged with an offense also is public information.

“What HB 285 was asking for was basically any suspended officers name without any grievance process, which we believe is before the officers have their due process,” Lutu said.

After introduction in January, the bill cruised through the House before crossing over to the Senate with little change.

In the Senate, the bill passed its first committee with simplifying amendments added before being heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee in late March. That committee added language requiring the report disclose starting in 2021 and that the report contain names of officers suspended after March 1, 2020.

The measure then passed a third reading on the Senate floor and was transmitted back to the House, where lawmakers voted to disagree with amendments made in the other chamber.

In conference, legislators from both sides were unable to reach an agreement, leaving the bill dead this legislative session. Because this is the first year of the Legislature’s biennial cycle, the measure carries over to the 2020 session.

“A lot of officers really don’t understand what that bill is about and I think a lot of politicians don’t know what that bill is about and I feel that a lot of them that are on these committees haven’t even read the bill and have voted it forward,” Lutu said. “When they (the conferees) actually spoke to some of our SHOPO representatives, including myself, they didn’t realize how much this bill entails, and I think what they wanted to do some amendments to the bill before it goes forward before next year’s session.”

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Attempts to reach Sen. Clarence Nishihara and Rep. Chris Lee, both Oahu Democrats and chairmen on the conference committee, were unsuccessful as of press time.

Email Chelsea Jensen at cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com.

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