A spate of police-involved shootings this summer — two of them fatal — has raised questions about procedures and training at the Honolulu Police Department.
“We don’t have the death penalty, so no matter how reprehensible the activity the person is engaging in, we do not summarily execute people,” said University of Hawaii at Manoa criminology professor Meda Chesney-Lind. “The police have to reassure us all that that is not what is happening. We can learn from these incidents so that they won’t be repeated.”
In back-to-back cases a week apart, drivers in their 50s were killed in close range by multiple shots from July 24 to Aug. 6.
In each case, the Honolulu Police Department called the slain men murder suspects. The shooters — police officers — were stopping a threat, they said.
Chesney-Lind and other Honolulu criminology experts are decrying the killings, questioning the police version of events, and calling for more information, openness and accountability from HPD.
When shootings have occurred, top HPD officials have routinely defended the actions of officers — even before internal investigations have begun.
The department has declined numerous requests from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for interviews on the criticisms leveled against it, providing only email responses to some questions about the following three shootings:
» July 24: A police sergeant shot at a man driving a stolen car on Red Hill, but the man got away. Police identified the man a month later as the same man shot and killed by police Aug. 6.
» July 30: A six-year HPD veteran shot and killed Richard Nelson, 52, of Manoa, on Kuhio Avenue. Nelson, drunk at the time, tried to flee in his car and nearly struck the officer who was investigating him for rear-ending a bus.
» Aug. 6: James Koa Pickard Jr., 51, was seated in a stolen car parked at a Pacific Palisades house when three officers approached to arrest him. Police said he drove toward an officer in front, hit a police car, and reversed toward two officers behind. He then drove forward toward one of the officers, and two officers fired seven shots through the side and front windows at Pickard, who died at the scene. The officers have 18, 11 and four years of service, but it’s unclear who fired the shots.
“Our goal is never to have a fatality, but sometimes we are put in situations where we have to use lethal force,” HPD Chief Louis Kealoha said at a news conference following the Pacific Palisades shooting. He warned the public that failure to comply with an officer’s command to stop may place the officer’s life and the community in danger.
Officers are taught to aim for “center mass” (chest area) to stop the threat, he said, calling the use of deadly force in the case appropriate.
An accidental shooting occurred on Aug. 12, just one week after the Pacific Palisades incident when a police lieutenant at a 7-Eleven store in Pearl City approached a stolen car with his gun drawn. The lieutenant was knocked to the ground, and was seriously injured when the driver reversed with his car door open.
|POLICE POLICY ON WHEN AN OFFICER MAY SHOOT
The Honolulu Police Department provided the following information:
» An officer will draw his weapon if he may have to use it.
The gun accidentally discharged. Police later said the officer was dragged and opened an attempted murder investigation. The driver and his passenger fled, and were never caught.
The officer received injuries that were not life-threatening injuries and remains on injured leave.
Are officers trained to get out of the way of a fleeing vehicle? What is the procedure? Those are questions Chesney-Lind said police should have to answer.
“By standing in front of automobiles, that may not be the best way to handle the situation,” she said. “This could either get an officer mowed down by a vehicle or we get officers pulling guns and shooting at people in vehicles.”
Chesney-Lind said criminalizing people killed in police encounters, such as using the term “murder suspect” is verbal gymnastics.
“We don’t have the death penalty for drug offenses or car theft or finding someone in a stolen car,” or just being drunk as in the case of Gregory Gordon, the soldier killed in Waikiki surrounded by police cars in 2013, she said.
Chesney-Lind called for a thorough and public review, and said Honolulu should have an independent review commission.
HPD needs to be answerable to the public and the process should be more transparent, Chesney-Lind said.
In an op-ed piece in the Star-Advertiser on Aug. 17, David Johnson, a UH professor of sociology, said Honolulu police have shot and killed eight people in the last five years (or 1.6 per year), which is, per capita, about double the national average of “justifiable killings” by police.
In 11 years — from 2004 to 2014 — Honolulu police shot and killed 13 people, an average of a little over one a year. This year, two were killed in eight months.
Part of the problem is the department is not providing training in how to handle “in-your-face confrontation,” said Dorothy Goldsborough, who teaches criminology at the UH-Manoa and Chaminade University. Psychological training should be taught in a college environment, she said.
“The chief of police has always wanted to raise the civil service requirement for police officers from a high school to at least an associate’s degree, with specifics on learning community policing,” said Goldsborough, who was a professor to Kealoha.
In the 1930s, she said, “police walked on the street in major cities with no guns, with only billy sticks,” adding, “Now they have to wear a vest to protect themselves from being shot. Something is wrong.”
She blames easy access to guns, including for people with criminal intent.
“(Police) are reacting to a situation because it developed around them,” she said. “He’s fearful, with no psychological, sociological training, and he doesn’t know how to circumvent this kind of situation.”
During a news conference after the Kuhio Avenue shooting, police Maj. Lester Hite, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, said: “It’s a split-second decision. Officers make them all the time. At that time, the officer determined the best choice of action was to fire.”
Police said after every major incident, the details are reviewed to see whether changes should be made to training or in other areas.
Former police officer Aaron Hunger, who says police are taught how to word reports to protect the police department from liability in police shootings by writing: “‘He drove at me, so I shot him five times in the chest,’ rather than, ‘He fled from me, and I shot at him five times in the chest.’”
Hunger, who was a Miami Dade (Fla.) police officer in the 1990s, is a criminal justice instructor at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. He asked his students which statement best describes a video clip of an officer chasing Nelson in Waikiki before fatally shooting him: 1) The driver appears to be driving at the officer; or 2) The driver appears to be fleeing from the officer.
Of the 32 students, 31 thought the officer’s use of force appeared inappropriate, and that the driver appeared to be fleeing from the officer, not driving at the officer.
That officer was investigating Nelson for rear-ending a bus with his car, and was stopped on Kuhio Avenue when the officer spotted an open liquor container inside and he refused to get out.
Police said Nelson made a U-turn on busy Kuhio Avenue, hitting a tree and nearly striking pedestrians.
The officer pursued him on foot. After again refusing to comply, Nelson reversed his car, and nearly hit the officer, police said. That’s when the officer fired five shots through Nelson’s open window, and struck him in the torso multiple times, apparently at close range.
With no one controlling it, the Jetta sped down Kuhio, losing its engine block and ended up on the sidewalk.
In October 2013, the “driving at police” allegation got a 35-year-old burglary suspect arrested on five counts of first-degree attempted murder for striking and injuring officers in his attempt to flee in a truck stolen from a home near Alvah Scott Elementary School in Aiea. Police shot him, but he survived.
Prosecutors charged the suspect, Amery Kahale-Sugimura, with property and drug crimes, but not attempted murder.
The police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., of an unarmed African-American teen underscores a soaring trend of violence against the public in police departments across the country, according to Trends Journal publisher Gerald Celente.
A recent analysis in the publication — “Police Violence Against the Public Soars” — outlines incidents where “trigger-happy” cops showed no restraint in using excessive firepower and violence for simple acts like routine traffic stops.
But unlike the Missouri teen shooting, there was no public outcry and no parents who spoke publicly to ask questions about the deaths in Honolulu. The dead men were in their 50s and their parents are either elderly or deceased.
Irmagard Pickard said her family has been reluctant to speak out about the police shooting that killed her son in the Pacific Palisades case, in part because the media had dredged up so much of his criminal past, as far back as nearly 30 years ago.
“We just want to know the name of the police officers (who shot her son),” she said. “Their family and they need prayers also.”
James Pickard left behind a son, three daughters, seven grandchildren, as well as his parents and two sisters.
Police said the man shot at by a police sergeant July 24 in Red Hill fleeing in a stolen car was Pickard, after learning his identity about a month later.
Richard Nelson’s mother, his only living parent, declined to speak with the Star-Advertiser about his death on July 30, when he was shot multiple times by a police officer.
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