The number of use of force incidents by HPD has more than tripled in the past decade, but police might just be better at reporting.
In 2022, Honolulu police unholstered a gun on a civilian 686 times but only fired at a suspect six times. Police sprayed chemical agents at people 150 times, kicked or punched people 541 times, used 27 head locks, 423 joint locks and 2,736 “physical strength techniques.”
They deployed a Taser 48 times, deployed a dog on people twice, struck another person with a baton and used the same to jab one individual.
Those uses of force killed two people, injured 994, and “seriously” or “substantially” injured another 25. Almost 5,000 reported no injuries.
Altogether, the Honolulu Police Department reported more than 6,000 use of force incidents in 2022, more than double the year prior.
The year 2021 had already marked a sharp increase over the past decade, according to a report by sociologists at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
From 2010 to 2021, use of force incidents HPD reported more than tripled from 706 to 2,646, the report by David T. Johnson, Nicholas Chagnon and Daniel Jeong found. From 2010 to 2019, the number of people police injured and the number of times police used deadly force also tripled, they concluded.
There is cause for hesitation when it comes to interpreting the data however.
As the report’s authors themselves acknowledge, the data is self-reported by police officers and is only as good as their reporting.
The classification of “deadly force” does not strictly mean killing someone; it also means pointing or merely unholstering a gun. And the dramatic rise in use of force incidents might be due in part to better data collection and more thorough self-reports by officers after HPD upgraded its system in 2016.
“Officers are now more likely to document low levels of force than they were in the past,” HPD spokesperson Michelle Yu said in an email. “Changes in public attitude, social media and national protests have contributed to officers reporting any use of force (i.e. using a hand to guide or move an individual) in the event that a complaint is made,” she said.
Still, the report points to certain trends in Honolulu’s policing.
In 2021, police used force most often when responding to mental health calls — accounting for 17% of all incidents the report found.
Of the 454 mental health calls officers responded to in 2021, just one incident was resolved by a verbal command. The rest included three uses of a chemical agent (like pepper spray), 22 uses of a specialty weapon including a Taser, 34 uses of deadly force (including the threat or preparation to use it), 98 uses of “physical contact” and 295 uses of “physical confrontation.”
“Officers are routinely sent to calls involving mentally ill persons, and these calls are more likely to involve use of force than incidents involving non-mentally ill persons,” Yu, the HPD spokesperson, said. “HPD is continuing to require de-escalation and crisis intervention training for officers.”
In 2022, HPD reported 947 responses to mental health calls, almost double the year before. Police physically confronted the person 569 times, used a Taser eight times, sprayed them with a chemical agent 14 times, and put three in head locks. Police unholstered a gun 32 times, wielded a rifle 21 times, and a shotgun twice.
In 370 of the 452 times a subject showed no resistance in 2021 — about 82% — an officer “threatened or prepared to use deadly force,” the researchers found.
“We cannot be sure, but these figures may mean that there are many occasions in which police policy and/or training mandate the unholstering of a firearm,” the researchers wrote.
In cases where officers reported use of deadly force when a subject showed “no resistance,” Yu said they “primarily” involved “officers who unholstered their firearm as a precaution (e.g., while conducting a building search).” She added, “We will be evaluating how to better capture and distinguish this data.”
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Significant Racial Disparities
Micronesians were the most over-represented group subjected to use of force by police in 2021, the report found. Black people and Samoans were the next most over-represented.
Micronesians were 3.5 times more likely to face police use of force than white people, 5 times more likely than Native Hawaiians, and 25 times more likely than people who are ethnically Japanese or Chinese, the report found.
Japanese and Chinese people were the most under-represented racial and ethnic groups subjected to police force, followed by Filipinos, Koreans, then whites, according to the data.
People who identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander were “significantly overrepresented” in the number of people who were killed by police or died in custody, the report said, though the data does not differentiate Native Hawaiian from specific Pacific Islander groups.
“The disparities we have identified could be signs of discrimination, though this is not certain,” the researchers wrote. “But large disparities do suggest the possibility of discrimination against Micronesians, Samoans, and Blacks, and this means HPD use of force should be closely monitored and controlled.”
Advocates for reform argue that police are tasked with addressing too many societal problems.
“They have become the tool our leaders use to address every social problem imaginable, from homelessness to substance abuse – it isn’t effective and often ends up causing harm,” Liam Chinn, coordinator of the Reimagining Public Safety in Hawaii Coalition, said in a press release about the study. “In the same way you wouldn’t send a carpenter to do dentistry work, we shouldn’t send police to deal with mental health crises or substance addiction,” Chinn said.
But there hasn’t been much discussion about solutions.
“We’re not even having the conversation,” said Nikos Leverenz, grants and advancement manager at the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center. “It’s really up to leaders in the community to look at the available data and start working toward a mental health crisis response that reduces the amount of police involvement and by definition the use of force against people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.”
Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan will present his own report on the UH study to the police commission on Wednesday, Honolulu Police Commission chair Doug Chin said.
“Having objective numbers and data at a local level, if they are accurate, will help us focus the important conversation on what is actually happening here on Oahu and give commissioners a benchmark to hold the chief and his leadership team accountable for the chief’s performance on this issue,” Chin said.