Feb 26 2013
In 1997, Honolulu police officer Russell Won went to federal prison for his involvement in beating an inmate at the Pearl City police station.
A year later, he was back in Honolulu — and back in police work. The federal prison sentence didn’t cause the Honolulu Police Department to fire him. Instead, he was put on leave without pay while he did his time.
When his sentence was over he was assigned to train new recruits at the academy. He kept his gun and badge and went on to become a detective with a long career at HPD.
Won was one of three officers indicted and convicted at the same time for mistreating prisoners in their custody at the Pearl City station. In a plea bargain, Won eventually was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to a year in federal prison.
Sgt. Clyde Hayami went to prison for nearly five years for brutally beating three inmates on three separate occasions. In one of those incidents, Hayami, with the help of Won, clubbed an inmate over the head with a blackjack, sending him to intensive care.
Hayami was allowed to resign as a part of his plea deal, promising never to work in law enforcement again.
Officer Keith Flynn was also convicted in the incident involving Hayami and Won. Remaining on the police department, he served six months, dividing his time between a halfway house and his home. He was suspended but not discharged and reassigned to the Traffic Division’s Junior Police Officer program.
The case of the three officers made headlines in 1996, partly because it came on the heels of much-publicized community debate over police disciplinary records. A year earlier, the Hawaii Legislature had sided with the state’s powerful police union and barred police misconduct records from public disclosure.
It was a political battle of the highest order, fought in the courts, in the legislative hearing rooms, on the editorial pages and ultimately decided in the governor’s office. Then-Gov. Ben Cayetano allowed the exemption, which had not been granted for any other class of public employee, to go into law without his signature.
At the sentencing for Hayami and Flynn, U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra gave voice to the reality of what the Legislature and Cayetano had done.
Ezra believed that public knowledge of disciplinary problems was important to prevent abuse of power by police officers, according to an Aug. 6, 1996 report of the sentencing in the Honolulu Advertiser. By HPD keeping their actions secret, he said, it “creates a feeling of invincibility.”
“When a police officer is found guilty of misconduct after a fair hearing, the public has a right to know,” Ezra told a courtroom packed with police supporters. “If that had been in place, this case may never have happened.”
Today, nearly 20 years later, police disciplinary records are still off limits to the public. Officers still get in trouble for abusing suspects, for lying to their supervisors and even for breaking the law. Most of them still keep their jobs, and yet their transgressions are largely hidden from public view.