The Need for Police Reform Is Now Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
The fact that the state hired a disgraced cop against the recommendations of the police agency that fired him cries out for a statewide police oversight board.
JANUARY 14, 2016 · By The Civil Beat Editorial Board
When the Honolulu Police Department fired Officer Ethan Ferguson four years ago, one might have thought the disgraced policeman would be done as a lawman. Falsifying reports and lying to investigators regarding his transportation of an underage runaway aren’t the sort of offenses a police officer’s career can typically survive.
But as we know now, that’s not the way things turned out. Ferguson shockingly went to work within a year for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources as a law enforcement officer on the Big Island, with the same authority, power and weaponry entrusted to HPD cops.
Cut to last Thursday, when Ferguson was busted in another case involving a minor and charged with five counts of sexual assault. The arrest was based on allegations by a teen that she’d been assaulted in Hilo by a man in a DLNR law enforcement uniform.
What’s wrong with this picture? How could a cop fired for serious problems with integrity be hired by another law enforcement agency in the same state?
The outrageousness of the situation makes an emphatic case for what’s lacking in Hawaii. We remain the only state without a statewide standards and training board and one of only six states that doesn’t give a statewide oversight agency the power to revoke a peace officer’s license for misconduct.
The facts of this case, still emerging, border on the ridiculous.
James Nishimoto, director of Hawaii’s Department of Human Resources Development, confirmed Wednesday in an e-mail to Sen. Will Espero that both HPD and Ferguson himself acknowledged prior to his hire by DLNR that he had been fired from his previous job.
“Details regarding the termination were not provided” by HPD, Nishimoto told Espero.
But HPD now says that’s not exactly the case. In fact, Honolulu police officials said late Wednesday they recommended DLNR not hire Ferguson. Still, HPD did not disclose the circumstances that led to Ferguson’s discharge, even to a brother law enforcement agency.
But DLNR recruiters didn’t need to look far to find out about Ferguson’s troubled past. A simple Google search would have told them the story.
Civil Beat’s Nick Grube reported Ferguson’s firing in 2014 and the offenses for which he lost his job. The story was part of our ongoing coverage of the lack of transparency when it comes to police misconduct and discipline in Hawaii. Grube’s piece focused in part on how quick police agencies are to destroy disciplinary records after an officer has been terminated, as HPD did in Ferguson’s case.
Police officers have extraordinary power over the lives of ordinary citizens, and the hiring of any cop who is going to carry a badge and a gun warrants careful scrutiny of an applicant’s background. It’s one thing for police officials, encouraged by the politically powerful police union, toshut the public out when it comes to being able to check up on the actions of police officers.
But to not disclose to another law enforcement agency bad behavior that led to termination? Come on.
That point is not lost on Sen. Espero, who practically breathed fire in an e-mail exchange Wednesday with Nishimiro and DLNR Chair Suzanne Case.
“Without knowing the discussions between the applicant and DLNR, I am outraged that DLNR would hire this individual in a law enforcement capacity. The state needs to err on the side of caution and public safety when it comes to hiring practices, and from what I know, this did not happen,” Espero wrote. “There was a red flag on this individual, and the state disregarded it.”
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Espero suggests a “zero-tolerance policy” in considering police officers fired from other departments. “We don’t need second rate law enforcement officers working in state government,” he declared.
Espero has been the loudest voice at the Legislature for the creation of a statewide board that would facilitate training and set professional standards for law enforcement.
Establishment of such a board and greater transparency in the disclosure of information related to police misconduct are two of four main reform proposals Civil Beat supports for the coming legislative session. Were those proposals already law, DLNR at minimum would have had the facts regarding Ferguson’s past offenses easily at its fingertips when considering his hire.
Espero is leading a coalition that promises to introduce these and other reform measures this year, though as he told Civil Beat in an Editorial Board meeting last month, he is leaning against language that would give a police standards board power to take away an officer’s certification.
He should reconsider throwing that political bone to the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, which has successfully opposed reform measures for years. The Ferguson case proves beyond a reasonable doubt the reasons a standards board should have the authority to certify and decertify officers.
In the session that begins in one week, legislators must take seriously reform of a law enforcement environment that, at minimum, allows problem cops to move from agency to agency without their history being fully disclosed to potential employers or to the taxpayers who fund their salaries. One girl has allegedly paid a steep price for that lack of reform.
Her case and numerous others in a law enforcement system that virtually stands alone nationally in its lack of adequate oversight cry out for justice. This year, we must not ignore the cries.
About the Author
The Civil Beat Editorial Board
The members of Civil Beat's editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Bob Ortega, Richard Wiens, Chloe Fox and Todd Simmons. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group's consensus view. Contact Opinion Editor Todd Simmons at firstname.lastname@example.org or 808-377-0247.