Hawai‘i has a system of policing that does not work. We are not insulated from the systemic, fundamental issues with policing that have exploded into the national consciousness on the continent. COVID has brought these issues into even sharper focus, but the problems with policing in Hawai‘i have existed for decades.

From the racism and abuse of power of the Massie case in the 1930s to the corruption of the Kealoha scandal of the 2010s, policing in Hawai‘i has a long history of problems. In addition to racism, corruption, and abuse of power, we also face a more mundane, but perhaps even more insidious problem: we rely on the police to cure all societal ills–a task to which they are poorly suited. We need to fundamentally change the role of police in our society, and that role has to be smaller, more circumscribed, and less funded with taxpayer dollars. 

In Hawai’i as in the continent, we do not have a history of holding police officers accountable:

  • The local police commission has no power to investigate and discipline police.
  • We were the last state to have a law enforcement standards review board and to-date, we still do not have standards or a certification process.
  • We also do not have a functioning police shooting review board.
  • Police departments are not transparent and police chiefs have all the power to set policies and to be transparent and not. 
  • We have clients who filed complaints internally with the police and years later do not know what happened to the officer involved. 
  • In Hawai’i, circumstantially we would not know the name of the cop--Derek Chauvin--who shot George Floyd. That needs to change.

    Together this is a recipe for abuse and there is a lot of it. And this is not just about the Kealohas or a few bad apples, it is about a bad system. 

According to FBI figures, the level of property crime has been on a general downward trend (with some peaks and valleys) in Hawai‘i since 1985 and the level of violent crime has stayed consistent during that time. Yet despite this, the rate of imprisonment in Hawai‘i has skyrocketed over the last 40 years. To see what is driving this trend, it is important to realize that every 20 minutes a person is arrested in Hawai‘i. 

Based on the statements of law enforcement, one would be excused for thinking this is because of how much violent crime is occurring in Hawai‘i. But again according to FBI figures, of the 28,437 arrests a year in Hawai‘i, only 2% are for crimes of violence. Indeed, in 2018 alone, 166 people in Hawai‘i were arrested for vagrancy, 4,895 for drug abuse violations, 3,062 were arrested for drunkenness, and 840 were arrested for disorderly conduct–an offense so broad that includes everything from engaging in fighting behavior to making “unreasonable noise” and impeding or obstructing “for the purpose of begging or soliciting alms.”

And these arrests are not all created equal. On O‘ahu alone, the Honolulu Police Department (HPD)’s arrest data shows that so far during the COVID-19 pandemic, HPD was 30 times more likely to arrest a Micronesian person and five times more likely to arrest a Black or Samoan person for violations of the COVID-19 orders than to arrest a white person. Similarly, a person experiencing houselessness was almost 55 times more likely to be arrested under the orders than a house person. 

And another recent study has shown persistent racial disparities in police use of force against Black people, Native Hawaiians, and other Parcific Islanders between 2010 and 2018. And overall in Honolulu, COVID orders have had a disparate impact on Black people, Micronesian people (e.g., people from the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, etc.), Samoans, and people experiencing houselessness.

We know that the most effective way to provide social services and mental health services to those in need is through people with expertise in those areas. But rather than fully funding social services, community outreach, and mental health providers, we have handed this job to police. Instead of sending a trained social worker to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis, we typically send an officer with a gun and handcuffs. And we’ve relied on this so heavily that we have bloated our police budgets to the extent that they are the first or second largest line items in their respective county budgets, with everything else except for transportation and water and sewer service, a distant also-ran.

And instead of acknowledging the work to be done, most local law enforcement officials have claimed these problems do not exist in Hawai‘i and have opposed even the most basic, common-sense reforms.

It would be tempting to say that the system is broken. Unfortunately, we know that most systems work exactly as they’re supposed to, and that is true here as well. It is a system that fails to deliver on the constitutional promise of due process and equal protection for all. It restricts liberty in arbitrary and outrageous ways. It carries enormous moral costs, and impairs the safety, vitality, and basic humanity of all residents of Hawai‘i. The ACLU of Hawai‘i will lead a campaign to reimagine what is possible and put in place a new system that works for everyone, including those most marginalized under the current system.


What can you do?

Who do you want to be? The person that just sits passively as things happen, like the three officers who just stood by as George Floyd was choked to death, or do you want to pull your camera out and start a movement to make sure this does not happen again? 

REPORT POLICE MISCONDUCT: How To File A Report Against Police Abuse Of Power, Misconduct, Or Harm

Reimagine the Police and their Role in Society. We know this is possible because this different world exists today, for communities that are largely wealthy and white. It is time to reduce our legal code, reduce the role of the police, and reduce mass incarceration and reinvesting savings into alternatives to policing that will keep local communities safe and help them thrive.

Educate yourself through books, movies, documentaries both about history but also about what is going on in current events

  • New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • The 1619 Project from the NYT
  • Between the world and me by Ta Nehisi Coates
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • 13th on Netflix
  • The last season of Serial, the podcast
  • Register to vote
    • After registering you need to register your signature and make sure you get and post your ballot on time
  • Learn about the candidates
    • If you are passionate about these issues, look at their records; have they spoken about the need for reform before, or is this the first time?
    • Do they take police union money?
    • Prosecutor is the most important actor in the criminal legal system
      • The protests of 2020 happened in large part because prosecutors were not holding officers accountable for killing Black people. To this date, no charges have been brought for the killing of Breonna Taylor.

Finally, show up when it matters most and when the legislature and city council are voting on reform:

  • Join an advocacy training
  • Sign up for and stay active on social media
  • And just like 10,000 marched in Hawai'i in 2020, we need thousands to show up when policymakers are voting on these important measures.