Hawai‘i police reform bills progress through the Legislature
Lawmakers face calls to pass measures aimed at law enforcement in response to police-involved shootings
by Liam Thropp
April 22, 2021
Update: All police reform bills died for the Legislative session. The article was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
As the 2021 legislative session got underway, lawmakers were facing calls to pass measures aimed at law enforcement reforms largely in response to police-involved shootings and other deadly incidents here and on the mainland.
Supporters have since voiced their frustration as their elected representatives shelved bills that would’ve banned police from using chokeholds and certain militarized equipment on demonstrators and required police departments to collect data on use of force.
Though many of the reform bills failed to gain traction, at least two measures still have a chance to become law.
House Bill 250 is one of them. The bill, which is being discussed between the House and Senate, would make sexual assault by an officer a second- or third-degree offense.
If the Senate and House agree on the amendments to the bill, it will go to the governor’s office for final approval.
The bill clarifies that it would be a second-degree offense if a person whom the officer sexually assaulted is mentally ill or “physically helpless,” according to the language of the bill. It would be a third-degree offense if an officer sexually assaults a minor while pulled over or in custody.
The current law does not include include traffic stops when defining sexual assault relating to police custody, but the bill would include a traffic stop as police custody.
HB 250, introduced by Rep. Linda Ichiyama (D, Salt Lake-Moanalua Valley), was prompted by an incident in 2014, when a Honolulu police officer sexually assaulted a teenage girl. Last year the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that former Honolulu police officer Kramer Aoki, 41, was sentenced to 14 days in jail for sexually assaulting the minor he stopped for speeding.
The case was deemed as a fourth-degree sexual assault, a misdemeanor, but prosecutors had asked for up to a year in jail. Aoki’s lawyer, at the time, said that “a traffic stop is not custody.”
Maui Police Department Assistant Chief Victor Ramos opposed the measure, saying there are “laws that properly address this type of abhorrent behavior.”
“There appears to be no need to single out law enforcement,” Ramos said in written testimony. “This bill only addresses ‘an incident,’ as in a single incident for the basis of this proposal.”
Senate Bill 726 would ban no-knock warrants in Hawaii, clarifying that officers would have to announce their presence at a premises and wait 30 seconds before entering, and must be in uniform.
The bill was unofficially dubbed “Breonna’s Law” by supporters. Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old emergency technician who was shot and killed in her Kentucky apartment by three officers who had a no-knock warrant.
MPD opposed the measure and said the use of no-knock warrants “is an option only if intelligence is received and verified that a target is in possession of firearms and has demonstrated a willingness to use them against law enforcement.”
Mandy Fernandes, policy director of ACLU Hawai‘i, emphasized how dangerous no-knock warrants are.
“They rely on the element of surprise in order to conduct the search,” Fernandes said referring to no-knock warrants. “It’s frequently used late at night or early in the morning. And if someone is breaking into your home at 5 or 6 in the morning, you would probably assume that it’s a burglar, and you might react to defend your family.”
The measure, introduced by Sen. Stanley Chang (D, Diamond Head-Kahala- Hawai‘i Kai), is awaiting a hearing before the House Judiciary and Hawaiians Affairs Committee.
Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Nakashima told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser via email that the bill will be heard sometime before Friday. If the bill passes Nakashima’s committee, it will go before the full House.
Senate Bill 742 would’ve required police departments to collect data on use of force, but it was shelved for this session when it was sent to the House.
Most of the bills were aimed at the Honolulu Police Department. Reached by email, spokeswoman Sarah Yoro said, “We are monitoring HB 250 and SB 726, and stand by our written testimony.”
HPD opposed SB 726, citing that its standard is to knock and announce when serving warrants upon approval from the prosecuting attorney’s office and a judge. Its written testimony also said that the 30-second requirement might be fatal for police officers.
For HB 250 there were no written testimonies documented.
Other bills prompted by Black Lives Matter protests last year failed to advance earlier in the legislative session. These would have banned police officers from using chokeholds and certain militarized weapons on demonstrators.
Another measure would have required police officers to report misconduct by another officer.
Nikkya Taliaferro, a 17-year-old activist who organized a Black Lives Matter march in Hawai‘i, said she is disappointed the bills died.
Sen. Karl Rhoads (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers killed past police reform measures in previous sessions.
“Bad behavior by the police is particularly troubling because we as a society give them a lot of power,” Rhoads said. “They can shoot and kill people, and it’s legal under certain circumstances. … I think we’ve been concerned about it for a while. The events from last year crystallized it somewhat.”