The ancient Roman poet Juvenal seldom comes up in everyday conversation these days. Yet his line—quis custodiet ipsos custodes—could easily be the rallying cry in support of a new piece of legislation this session.
The bill has revived an old conflict pitting journalists’ insistence on the right to know against the privacy rights of the police.
About twenty years ago the Society of Professional Journalists wrote to the chief of police at the Honolulu Police Department. The SPJ wanted information about officers who had been suspended or discharged, the nature of their misconduct, and the kind of action taken against them. The chief responded that the request was not specific enough and that if it was willing to pay for the time for personnel to search and compile the information, the department would disclose. The estimated cost came to $20,000. The SPJ limited its request, but the chief never responded.
Instead the department alerted the police officer’s union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officer (SHOPO), and everyone sued each other.
At one point, things came to a head before the late great Judge John Lim. Judge Lim’s courtroom was packed to the gills with uniformed officers standing arm in arm. It was an intimidating sight to see all of the officers in solidarity against the SPJ and disclosure.
Judge Lim spoke for fifteen minutes without notes when he announced his ruling. For those who were there, it was one of those “chicken skin” moments in the courtroom. Judge Lim extolled about the state and federal constitutions, and ultimately addressed the officers standing before him:
“Underlying all of those protections against that government and that police power is the people’s right to know. How do you exercise your rights against the government unless you know what the government is doing?
“Having said that, is it not paradoxical that the United State of America has the finest police force in the world? We, who as a people so profoundly mistrust government and its attendant police power, have the finest police force in the world.”
He ruled for the SPJ: “The public has a right to know, and therefore it does know and because it knows it insists that its police officers be educated. . . . And the reason that you, ladies and gentlemen of the Honolulu Police Department, are such professionals, so effective, such an asset to our community, is just because the public has a right to know, and because they have a right to know, they insist that you be excellent.”
The police didn’t see it that way. They took it up on appeal, but lost. The victory for the SPJ, however, was a pyrrhic one. The Legislature amended the law and exempted police officer disciplinary records from public disclosure. In other words, whether a police officer got into trouble and was disciplined by his or her department became off limits. It could not be disclosed.
And that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. The police departments would issue reports to the Legislature about nameless officers who were disciplined, but no one knew who they were. Sometimes a few stories would surface in the paper about it, but without names and details, it didn’t make for a good read.
That could all change this year. The bill repeals the exemption for police officers and subjects them—like any other public employee—to public disclosure when they are disciplined and punished for misconduct. Standing in support of the bill is obviously the SPJ, but this time around they have new allies.
The League of Women Voters and the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and advocates against domestic violence have pointed out that in some cases, the discipline of an officer who was smoking marijuana is much more severe than another officer who has engaged in domestic violence of an ex-wife or former girlfriend. The discrepancies are reported to the Legislature without revealing their names. Public disclosure, according to these groups, will help keep the police department more accountable and less tolerant of domestic violence.
So far there has been only one group in opposition to the bill: SHOPO. The union argued in written testimony that disclosure would impact the officers and their families and although other employees are not exempt from disclosure, seldom does it arise to the level of newsworthiness.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a conference on the bill this morning. It should be expected that the police officer’s union will strongly oppose the bill. Perhaps this morning would be a good time for supporters of the bill to translate the ancient Roman poet: “who will police the police?”