Across the United States, video evidence of local police misconduct is on the rise. Statistical data proving an increase in the number of citizens killed by police has grown to three killed daily in the United States.
These deaths have given rise to a growing political pushback, which has recently taken the form of more violent attacks on police patrol officers.
Although Hawaii remains the only state that has no state-level standards or training oversight mechanism governing police, the state has recently taken important legislative action to establish better relations between police and local communities. Other states could benefit from Hawaii’s reforms.
With the recent tragic deaths of police nationwide, many communities experiencing a crisis in public safety trust due to officer-involved killings will begin seeking answers to address their shared concerns. One of the leading issues voiced by communities forced to confront police shootings is the perception that independent experts are not routinely mandated to participate in police investigations.
Independent police review boards are not new, nor do they take a standardized form. Many criminologists and police experts have written about and studied the challenges, various forms and benefits of developing independent review of police by their communities.
Developing new tools to rebuild trust in police surrounding internal in-custody death investigations is now a presidential priority. This area is where the collective efforts of local Hawaii legislators, academics, community leaders and media elites may have succeeded.
Although there were no race-based variables that provoked police oversight reform legislation in Hawaii, the new legislation directly addresses key complaints of communities whose distrust of local police includes race-based variables. Senate Bill 2196 was created to address concerns surrounding police investigating themselves in potential homicide cases. The bill was supported by sociological research conducted at the University of Hawaii that investigated police habits and conduct that focused on Honolulu police oversight and legislative reform policy.
After extensive case studies into police oversight, state Sen. Will Espero was approached with the data and conclusions of these studies. Details of other cities’ civilian oversight boards were presented to Espero, and legislation was eventually drafted that would become SB 2196, providing for an independent civilian oversight board into deaths that take place while the deceased is in police custody.
During discussions with Espero, it became clear that any legislative effort to bring about this type of reform would need to speak to five key areas:
- A strong bridge between legislators, academics and policing professionals who are willing to share information and strategies toward a common goal;
- A strategy for educating the media (and thereby the public);
- A communal awareness agenda aimed at prioritizing this issue as critical;
- A coalition of interested citizens willing to submit public testimony (repeatedly) on the legislation;
- And an ability to convince local politicians that their job and reform legislation are interconnected.
These hurdles make apparent why most local public safety reform legislation stands little chance of passage. When reform legislation involving police conduct is introduced to a hostile political environment created by police unions and police managers who oppose outside interference into the “professional policing realm,” finding an industry or other professional willing to openly express political opposition to policing bureaucrats becomes problematic.
Yet, despite many who doubted Hawaii’s public resolve, SB 2196 has successfully passed into law.
Independent, Mandatory Reviews
SB 2196 is legislation that may provide communities nationwide a starting point for how to address rebuilding communal trust involving police shootings and other deaths at the hands of police. By alleviating local policing bureaucracies from the burden of having to defend internal investigations integrity, both police and communities can be assured that police who are justifiably prompted to use deadly force may be cleared of wrongdoing by an independent board of industry professionals. Likewise, police who violate departmental guidelines or criminal statutes when using force would be open to external scrutiny surrounding abuses of police power.
SB 2196 attempts to restore public confidence in two parts. First, the legislation creates an independent review board, appointed by the governor, which is mandated to investigate all in-custody deaths in the state. The legislation allows the governor to appoint nine members, including, most importantly among others, two independent citizens (one of whom must have police experience – e.g. a civilian with five years of experience in death cases; the other must have no police connections).
SB 2196 may not appease every American community struggling with officer-involved deaths. But it should begin discussions on methods that may be altered to fit the needs of that specific community.
Second, SB 2196 mandates all internal police investigative findings be sent to the board, which reviews the entire investigatory process and results. The board then meets directly with the state attorney general, who is tasked with working with prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against any party.
Although this legislation is a negotiated settlement that eventually negated a suggested independent investigator, a greater civilian review component and more prosecutorial power, the fact that Hawaii now is positioned to have some systemic oversight review into police killings should be considered progressive.
Another political concession that looms heavily over this new legislation relates to whether the board’s recommendations must be followed. However, expansion of the board’s authority is always a possibility in future legislation, should it be determined necessary.
The hope that comes from passing this legislation is that it allows other communities in crisis to learn from what has been accomplished in Hawaii, and work together at ending police violence involving its citizens.
About the Author
GUEST CONTRIBUTORAaron Hunger is an Instructor of Criminal Justice, Public Administration, Criminology, Political Science, and Emergency Management at Remington College; and a doctoral student at UH Manoa. He served as a law enforcement officer both federally, and at the county level on the mainland.