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Tackling domestic violence: Hawaiʻi must do better

While state laws and the Honolulu Police Department's policies regarding domestic violence cases need some improvement, experts say it is HPD's poor enforcement of these laws and policies that is the real factor in continuing cycles of domestic violence in Hawaiʻi.

in Domestic Violence

A September 8 domestic violence incident involving Honolulu Police Department (HPD) Sergeant Darren Cachola allegedly hitting his girlfriend repeatedly in a restaurant has shined a spotlight on HPD policies and procedures involving domestic violence cases, particularly when officers are involved.

The public safety committees from the respective houses of the Legislature were joined by members of the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus during an informational session on September 30 designed to pinpoint holes in these policies that allow the cycle of domestic abuse in Hawaiʻi to continue. But experts from advocacy groups said that it isn’t so much bad policies that are the problem, but rather poor enforcement of domestic violence laws and policies on the part of HPD officers, and a lack of accountability that is to blame.

“Given all these laws, we have to ask ourselves ‘why isn’t it working?’” said Loretta Sheehan, an attorney with the Domestic Violence Action Center (DVAC). “The problem isn’t the laws. The problem is with the way the laws are being enforced … In every field, including law enforcement, you have to step back occasionally and ask, ‘is what we’re doing working?’ Largely, at the misdemeanor level at least, it is not.”

HPD policies mandate that officers must prepare written reports for all incidents involving domestic violence, but HPD Chief Louis Kealoha admitted that no report had been generated for the Sgt. Cachola incident. Additionally, there is currently no criminal case against Sgt. Cachola, though HPD has sent the case to the City Prosecutor’s Office.

This incident is demonstrative of why domestic violence cases in general are so difficult to prosecute. No report was generated because the responding HPD officers were dispatched to handle an argument between Sgt. Cachola and a restaurant employee, not on a domestic violence case. Add to that the fact that the alleged victim claims that they were merely “horse-playing,” and the case becomes a real challenge for prosecutors—even with a tape showing Sgt. Cachola clearly hitting his girlfriend.

“I think I can say, without equivocation, that this is going to be the focus of the [Women’s] Caucus activity this year,” said Senator Roz Baker.

Testimony from advocacy groups and from Kealoha and his Deputy Chiefs indicate a disconnect between the department and the community. HPD officers clearly need better training when it comes to handling all aspects of domestic violence cases—from information gathering to interacting with victims—but especially when it comes to cases involving one of their own.

Deputy Chief Dave Kajihiro said that the Professional Standards Office (PSO)—formerly Internal Affairs (responsible for completing investigations into HPD employees suspected of committing crimes)—sees around 50 cases a year involving domestic violence or other spousal-related incidents (including non-physical incidents such as arguments and yelling). The PSO recommends either additional training, peer support or—if necessary—discipline for the officers involved in most of those cases.

According to Deputy Chief Marie McCauley, HPD has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence. But Sen. Laura Thielen pointed to reports from the previous year showing these cases and wanted to know why most received no more than a one day suspension.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim read one of those incident reports out loud: “‘Officer was involved in a domestic dispute that escalated into physical altercation causing pain to the complainant.’ I don’t know how else you can say that this is domestic violence … and yet the officer was given one day [suspension]. One day. I mean, ‘zero tolerance’—what does that mean?”

“When we say zero tolerance, it doesn’t mean every one will be dismissed,” explained Kajihiro. “It depends on the severity of the case. It also depends on how, I guess, cooperative the victims are—that’s the most difficult thing in any domestic violence situation.”

Recognizing that, Sheehan suggested that a policy change be made so that HPD officers must document all complaints of family violence at all site visits, even if no arrest is made and no statement given.

“There must be a record,” Sheehan said. “This record will inform law enforcement and the criminal justice system on how to proceed in dealing with an individual in future custody cases, requests for [Temporary Restraining Orders], bail hearings. This trail of miscellaneous reports will stand as a huge red flag that, historically, there is a problem with violence at this residence. It allows an attorney or a judge or a court officer to dig deeper.”

Sheehan also suggested that HPD invest in chest cameras for officers—a practice already in place in several large metropolitan police departments on the mainland—to aid in creating a better record of domestic violence, again, especially when officers are involved.

According to Marci Lopes, Executive Director of the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in St. Paul, Minnesota officers have cameras in their cars and carry chest cameras as well. They also carry a booklet with different domestic violence codes used by dispatchers, giving responding officers a much better idea of what they’re responding to before they arrive. Officers also carry a list of questions that help them ensure they assess the situation correctly, identify the primary aggressor and follow best practices for safeguarding victims. Dispatchers carry a similar book to help them assess 911 calls accurately.

“When 911 calls came in, there was another department in the call center that was looking through the records to be able to inform the officers arriving on the scene if there was any history of domestic violence prior,” said Lopes.

During a ride-along Lopes took with a St. Paul officer, she saw engaged, thoughtful, well-trained officers respond appropriately to domestic violence incidents. Officers actually encouraged victims to record whatever conversations they had with police to counteract some of the difficulties in prosecuting domestic violence cases. Advocacy groups update the St. Paul Police Department’s domestic violence policies annually. Officers file written reports, even when no action is taken, and there is a consistent response all officers provide in domestic violence situations—something Lopes says is not the case within HPD.

Representative Linda Ichiyama said that she’s been informed by constituents working in the domestic violence prevention field that victims have been occasionally discouraged from filing reports by responding HPD officers. Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland also said that constituents have told her that, in domestic violence incidents involving retired police officers, or friends or relatives of police officers, the responding officers often do not file domestic violence reports.

“If that’s happening, we want to know about it,” said Kealoha. “We need to know about that, because that is unacceptable.”

Sen. Kim, meanwhile, said that she has been told that often times in domestic violence cases involving an officer, special efforts are made to get the charge downgraded to a misdemeanor so that the officer can remain on the force.

Kealoha stated that whenever an HPD employee is being investigated for any suspected violation, whether it’s a crime or not, they are ineligible for promotion. “Once that case has been addressed and the discipline—if any at all—was taken against the officer, we don’t want to hang this over their heads for the rest of their careers,” said Kealoha. “The disciplinary process is to address behavior. It’s not used to address or judge the individual. Once we correct the behavior, we can move on.”

“What are the elements that go in to making sure the behavior has been corrected?” asked Sen. Baker. “Because I’m more interested in the citizenry being protected than the officers being protected … What will it take to get the department to require an incident report on any thing that looks, feels, smells, tastes like domestic violence?”

“As far as requiring a written report in all [domestic violence] cases—that’s a requirement now,” said Kajihiro. “Whether they’re following that—I think that’s the issue why we’re here. So we need to know when it doesn’t happen so we can address the officer.”

“Yeah, but you’re guys are the ones that are in control of that information,” replied Sen. Baker. “What is the department going to do to make sure that those incident reports are made? I think that’s why we’re suggesting things like cameras, because there seems to be, in some small way—I’m not going to say it’s huge—a culture that is preventing that from happening … I think part of it goes back to training and what you can do make officers understand that in a domestic violence situation it is often a power situation. It’s different from a robbery; it’s different from other kinds of violent crimes—and that’s got to be clear.”

Currently, HPD officers receive three hours of domestic violence-related training as new recruits, along with one hour of annual domestic violence recall training during a three-day overall recall training program. To the legislators present—and many in the room—this revelation was shocking.

“An hour of recall training? I just don’t think that does it,” said Sen. Baker. Lopes said that St. Paul police officers receive a week of domestic violence training as new recruits—40 whole hours.

Cathy Betts, Executive Director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, shared numerous experiences victims had in dealing with HPD officers in which the officers did not arrest the abuser, did not ensure the well-being of the victim and did not document the incident properly.

“Domestic violence hasn’t been prioritized within HPD,” said Betts. “It’s not held to a high level of importance and focus. If HPD officers are truly sensitive to victims of domestic violence and well-trained, then why does it matter what kind of call came in? If someone is well-trained and they get to a scene, they can figure out pretty easily what has transpired and what they need to do for the next steps.

“Finally, I think these complaints tell us that HPD has an internal, unwritten code of conduct in which police officers condone no action or reporting. If there is a code of conduct where people feel they do not need to report on another officer because that officer may lose their job, that’s just an unacceptable excuse,” continued Betts. “If victims don’t feel safe going to the police, where else do they go? They go nowhere; they stay with their abuser.”

“I don’t care how much training you put in, to me it’s the attitude,” said Sen. Kim, echoing Betts’ final statement. “If the top brass is not going to hold firm on this, then you can’t expect your officers to follow suit. You need to send a message down to your officers that you are serious about zero-tolerance.”

According to DVAC, from 2008–12, 38.7 percent of murders committed in the state were domestic violence-related. “I don’t think we’re overstating the importance of addressing this,” said Sen. Thielen. “We need to have a much, much better response to domestic violence in Hawaiʻi.”

For more background information on domestic violence in Hawaiʻi, read our explainer.

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Domestic violence explainer