The Death of Aaron Torres: ‘What’s the Big Secret?’

Three Honolulu police officers were exonerated by their supervisors but then the city paid $1.4 million to settle the family’s lawsuit. So what really happened? Heavily redacted police reports obtained by Civil Beat are raising suspicions in a city that still lacks an independent oversight board.
By Nick Grube /

Aaron Torres died after three Honolulu police officers pinned him face down in the dirt outside his home in Nanakuli. His hands were cuffed behind his back and there were shackles around his ankles.

It was Torres himself who called 911 in the early morning hours of Feb. 20, 2012. He was high on cocaine and hallucinating. He thought someone was after him, and he wanted an ambulance to take him to safety.

Instead, the three officers who came to his house wanted to take him to the hospital for a mental health evaluation. But he refused to go quietly. They decided to take him by force, and threw him to the ground.

Torres’ wife and family watched as he struggled to breathe under the heft of three men, each weighing between 215 and 240 pounds. Torres weighed 178 pounds and stood 5 feet 4 inches tall. The cops later described him as “incredibly strong.”

Torres’ death made headlines in Honolulu, particularly after the city approved a $1.4 million settlement in May 2014 in a lawsuit brought by his estate. The 37-year-old was the top earner in his family and his union job driving trucks for “Hawaii Five-0” paid nearly $100,000 a year. The settlement was one of the largest in Honolulu Police Department history.

But there has been little public scrutiny of HPD officers’ actions, even though a man died in their custody and taxpayers paid a huge settlement.

Guard dogs protected Aaron Torres’ house in Nanakuli. He died after struggling with three Honolulu police officers for several minutes in his driveway. Like Eric Garner in New York, Torres died after being held face down by police.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Hawaii, there is a fundamental lack of transparency when it comes to officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. Police and prosecutors reveal few details to the public and the press until well after the case has been concluded. For months, even longer, most details about the incidents are kept under wraps, and officers are not identified. Prosecutors rarely, if ever, file charges.

Even if an officer is found to have violated protocol, such as for the excessive use of force, information is withheld unless the officer is fired, which is also rare. And unlike many cities, Honolulu doesn’t have an independent board that reviews in-custody deaths or police shootings, which can lead to greater accountability.

Three years after Torres’ death, and a year after the court settlement, HPD finally released its reports on the incident to Civil Beat through a public records request. But much of the information is blacked out, including the names of the officers who killed Torres and nearly all of the statements they made to internal affairs investigators.

The way Honolulu and other police agencies in Hawaii handle public accountability for deadly actions by their officers is much different than many other cities, as the public is learning as police-related deaths play out week after week on national news.

“There is an accountability function that the public records law serves, and the purpose for that accountability is at its highest when you’re talking about police officers using force against a citizen resulting in his death.”

The shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white officer in Missouri prompted an increased interest in police actions throughout the country. When Eric Garner was killed by New York police, who were trying to arrest him for selling cigarettes on the street, his last words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry for protesters everywhere. In Baltimore, riots erupted after Freddie Gray succumbed to spinal injuries he received while riding handcuffed in the back of a police van without a seatbelt.

In these cases and many others, large amounts of information have been made public by police officials and those investigating the use of force by officers. Dashboard camera video — like the one in Arizona where a cop ran down a suspect carrying a rifle — body cam footage, 911 tapes, even initial investigative findings and other records are immediately released. Sometimes top law enforcement officials also provide detailed information during press conferences and interviews with the media.

But not in Hawaii. Torres’ death was similar to Garner’s in that they both died as a result of being held face down by police, yet few questions have been asked locally.

None of the Honolulu police officers involved in the case was charged with a crime, so the only information about what happened that morning and afterward comes from the civil lawsuit and an internal investigation that took nearly two years to complete. The police and prosecutor’s own inquiries found the officers used an appropriate amount of force when they laid on top of him.

The only discipline the officers received was “divisional counseling” for not filling out workers’ compensation injury reports. One officer had a scrape on his left ring finger and said he felt some pain in his wrist while another reported some bruises on his hand. The third said his thumb was bent backwards. They didn’t ask for medical attention.

“It’s just puzzling. We’ve got this national conversation about these particular issues, but it doesn’t seem to be happening here,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of Hawaii who has been outspoken about the need for more oversight of police in the islands. “People aren’t looking at these situations. It’s just very worrying that there’s very little change or concern.”

Behind the Black Ink

Civil Beat filed a public records request to obtain reports of HPD’s criminal and internal investigations of Torres’ death. It took the department five months to release the 714-page file. HPD charged $590.20, most of which went to cover the cost of redacting information from the reports. Public records law allows officials to charge $20 per hour for search and redaction and HPD said it took nearly 24 hours to process the Torres file.

While the records shed new light on how HPD handled the case, the redactions mask many important details, including the names of officers and witnesses who were at the scene. Also missing is the full recounting of events by the three officers involved in Torres’ death.

Those officers were identified in lawsuits as Alan Togami, Gregory Kinoshita and Martin Min, all of whom are still with the department. Not only have Togami, Kinoshita and Min’s police reports been blacked out, but so too are many of their statements made to the investigators who questioned them about what happened the day they confronted Torres.

Even the questions an internal affairs investigator asked the officers have been redacted, which raises concerns about whether the interview was as thorough as it could be.

The HPD has refused to fill in the blanks despite the fact that the case is closed and any pending litigation has been resolved. HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu declined to comment on the case, and instead referred questions to the city attorney’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Honolulu attorney Brian Black, who specializes in public records law, reviewed the Torres file at Civil Beat’s request. Black is the executive director of the nonprofit Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. He is currently representing Civil Beat in a lawsuit against HPD to free up police misconduct records. The Hawaii Supreme Court recently heard arguments in that case and has taken the matter under advisement.

Black said he finds many of the redactions in the Torres file “strange.” For instance, HPD removed portions of Torres’s autopsy report as well as sections of a lawsuit filed by his family. Both documents are public records under Hawaii law, and can be found in their entirety elsewhere, including in the civil lawsuit and the medical examiner’s report.

Most troubling to Black, however, are the redacted statements of Togami, Kinoshita and Min. Black says it’s important for the public to know the officers’ version of events, especially if they’re responsible for someone’s death.

Even the questions an internal affairs investigator asked the officers have been redacted, which raises concerns about whether the interview was as thorough as it could be. Without knowing what was asked, Black said, there’s no way to know.

“There is an accountability function that the public records law serves, and the purpose for that accountability is at its highest when you’re talking about police officers using force against a citizen resulting in his death,” Black said. “In those circumstances it’s extremely important that the public be able to understand what happened and how the police investigated that incident.”

Civil Beat has asked the Office of Information Practices — the state agency that administers Hawaii’s public records law — to review and overturn many of HPD’s redactions. That appeal is pending.

Many of the documents that describe HPD’s investigation into Torres’ death are covered in redactions, which obscures what really happened the morning Torres was killed.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

‘They’re Here for Me. Help.’

Aaron Torres made his first call to 911 at 4:21 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2012. He asked for an ambulance then hung up. Torres played phone tag with operators for nearly 24 minutes after that. Sometimes he’d pick up and not say a word. Other times he’d tell the dispatcher he was in imminent danger.

“Help me. Ambulance. There are guys going shoot me. I never do nothing,” Torres said, according to police reports. “These guys got guns. They’re here for me. Help.”

In all, he called nine times. Dispatchers couldn’t figure out what was going on so they sent officers to his home to investigate the dropped calls.

Torres lived with his wife and family in Nanakuli, a rural, blue-collar town on Oahu’s west side that’s known for its long, beautiful beaches and ethnically diverse population with a large number of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The Torres’ home sits at the end of Kaukai Road, a dead-end street lined with broken-down truck parts and ramshackle homes.

Officers Togami, Kinoshita and Min arrived at the Torres residence between 4:36 a.m. and 4:50 a.m., according to police records. The winter sun had yet to rise and the property was dimly lit. They could hear someone yelling for help and a woman’s voice coming from the darkness. The officers parked their cars on the roadway and walked toward the noise past growling dogs and snorting pigs to find Torres arguing with his wife, Michele, in the dirt driveway.

At first the officers thought Torres was playing “possum.” When they realized he wasn’t faking it, one of the officers started patting him on the back, pleading with him to wake up.

Michele Torres told the cops that her husband was “losing it.” She said he was talking to imaginary people in the trees, and that he should be taken to Kahi Mohala, a nearby behavioral health center in Ewa Beach, for a psychological evaluation.

It wasn’t Aaron Torres’ first break from reality. Just two weeks before, on Feb. 5, another officer had come to the home to take Torres to Castle Medical Center for a mental evaluation after he was found acting “highly paranoid” and said he was “going crazy.” Torres told the officer he had been “sniffing” some type of drug, but wouldn’t say what it was.

But no one had told Togami, Kinoshita or Min about this previous run-in when they confronted him on Feb. 20.

Torres was shirtless, glassy-eyed and unarmed when the officers approached him. All he had was his cell phone, which he waved above his head.

“Look! I don’t have anything in my hands,” Torres yelled, according to the police reports.

But every time the officers got near he backpedaled away from them disappearing behind shipping containers or other debris in the yard. Twice he reached into his shorts as if to grab something and then point an empty hand at the officers. Some of the reports describe this movement as “furtive,” but the officers could also see that his hands were empty.

At one point Torres ran toward the back of the property, an area that dropped 30 feet into a neighbor’s backyard. The officers later said they feared Torres might jump if they got any closer.

Eventually the officers were able to get close enough for one of them — identified in court records but blacked out in police files as Togami — to sneak behind Torres and grab him in a bearhug. Togami took Torres to the ground, where he held him face down as the other two officers helped to put on handcuffs. Torres kept kicking his legs as the officers lay on top of him.

Two officers remained on top of Torres as a third — described in court records as Min — left to get leg shackles. At 5:11 a.m. one of the officers told dispatchers, “We’re good. Got him secured.”

Two minutes later, at 5:13 a.m., a police psychologist was called and asked for approval to take Torres to a hospital for an emergency mental health evaluation.

But Torres continued to struggle under the weight of two of the officers who remained on his back despite the handcuffs and leg shackles. He bucked his body and yelled at them to get off his back. He even threatened to beat them up if they uncuffed him.

Torres’ brother, Brian, was at the scene then. He watched as the three officers again pressed down on his brother, trying to calm him.

Aaron Torres’ family sued HPD for his death. The settlement was one of the largest in the department’s history.

Submitted photo

Brian Torres still lives at the house in Nanakuli where his brother died, and was reluctant to talk about the case when Civil Beat found him at the property last week. His written statement to police says his brother’s face was still in the dirt when he told Aaron to relax and just go with the cops. It seemed to work. His brother stopped struggling. Not long after, he stopped breathing.

At first the officers thought Torres was playing “possum.” When they realized he wasn’t faking it, one of the officers started patting him on the back, pleading with him to wake up. A fourth officer who arrived on scene at 5:17 a.m. saw that Torres wasn’t responding to “revival techniques” and instructed the officers to take off the handcuffs and begin CPR.

This fourth officer, whose name was redacted from the police reports, had to wipe dirt from Torres’ mouth before giving rescue breaths as other officers did chest compressions.

An ambulance was called at 5:19 a.m. as more officers arrived on scene. None of the officers had an automated external defibrillator, or AED, that could deliver an electric shock if needed, according to police reports. The defibrillator at the Kapolei police station was broken or out of batteries. A call was made for the next closest one, which was in Pearl City, nearly 18 miles away.

The ambulance arrived at 5:36 a.m. Emergency personnel continued CPR until Torres was admitted to Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. Medical staff continued to pump Torres’ chest at the hospital. One of the officers assigned to watch him noted that Torres’ eyes were open, but appeared dull and not moving. The doctor said Torres had a faint pulse but it wasn’t enough to get his blood circulating.

He was pronounced dead at 6:31 a.m.

Torres’ death was ruled a homicide by the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office, but in the lingo of that agency the word “homicide” only means that Torres was killed by the intentional actions of another person.

The autopsy found that Torres died of mechanical asphyxia during police restraint as a result of cocaine-induced excited delirium, a controversial medical condition often cited in sudden in-custody deaths.

A pathologist noted that Torres had dirt covering his nose and on the left side of his face along with scrapes on his forehead and around his eyes, ears, lips and cheek. He also had a fractured sternum and three broken ribs. There was hemorrhaging of his diaphragm near the liver and at the attachment of a muscle in his neck.

Aaron Torres lived just a couple miles off of the Farrington Highway in Nanakuli. When police arrived on Feb. 20, 2012, they found growling dogs and snorting pigs.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Officers in the Clear

Several of Torres’ family members witnessed his struggle with police, including his wife, brother and sister, Tassa. But there were many others were on hand as well. While their version of events is similar to that of the police, there are a few differences. In other cities with independent review boards or better public oversight of in-custody deaths, the divergent stories would be openly aired and compared to the police and prosecutor’s version of events.

Michele Torres, for instance, said the officer already had Torres handcuffed before he was taken to the ground by Togami. And other witnesses, whose names were redacted from the official reports but included in court records, said they saw the officers push Torres’ face into the ground while he squirmed underneath their weight, yelling for help.

“He wasn’t fighting them. It looked like he was struggling to get air,” Tass Torres wrote. “But the officers kept holding his face down. All of a sudden his body had no movement. When they turned him over his face had dirt all over. One of the officers dusted the dirt from his mouth. His mouth was full with dirt. Then one of the cops said, ‘Ah he’s alright. He’s sleeping.’ But there was no movement. That’s when one of the officers started hitting his back.”

Another witness questioned why the officers remained on Torres’ even though he was handcuffed and shackled at the legs. The witness said it looked like the officers had used unnecessary force to subdue Torres because, “Aaron could do nothing at this point.”

HPD’s criminal investigation absolved Togami, Kinoshita and Min of any wrongdoing, and city prosecutors agreed.

On June 29, 2012, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Sano sent an eight-page letter to Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha outlining why no charges would be filed against Togami, Kinoshita or Min, and that all three officers were justified in their use of force.

“They basically squeezed him to death despite the fact that he was handcuffed and shackled and face down in the dirt. He wasn’t going to stand up and run. He wasn’t going to hurt anybody. The only person he would have hurt was himself.”

Sano said there was “no evidence whatsoever” that the officers were on top of Torres any longer than necessary to subdue him so they could take him in for a mental health evaluation. The prosecutor also said that none of the officers “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” killed Torres. They were only trying to prevent him from hurting himself or others, Sano said, calling that a justifiable use of force.

“It should be noted that (witness name redacted) claimed that the officers pushed and held Torres’ face-first in the dirt during and after the struggle,” Sano wrote in a footnote. “The autopsy photographs which show there was some dirt on Torres’ nose area and only on his left side of his face contradict their claims.”

Sano added that a similar allegation by a witness that the officers held Torres’ face in the dirt for 13 minutes “significantly exaggerated the total amount of time that the police could have restrained Torres after he finally stopped resisting.”

He pointed to 911 tapes showing only six minutes elapsed between the time officers asked for a mental health approval — when Torres started struggling with officers — at 5:13 a.m. and when CPR was started and an ambulance called at 5:19 a.m..

The fact that Torres wandered closed to a cliff or ledge along his property was enough to make officers fear for his safety, according to Sano. And Torres’ “paranoid and erratic” behavior made the officers worry he might hurt them or someone else at the scene, he said.

Torres’ constant struggle along with his threats to beat up the officers were also enough to justify their actions, Sano said, even though Torres was fully restrained with his hands cuffed behind his back and his legs in shackles.

“As such, the facts and circumstances in this case indicate that the three police officers were justified in the performance of their duty to restrain and continue their restraint of Torres,” Sano said. “In addition, the force used to continue restraint on Torres was reasonable given Torres’ combative actions, his threatening words to the police during the restraint, and to get Torres to the hospital for the (mental health exam).”

Click on the image to read HPD’s full investigation into Aaron Torres’ in-custody death.

HPD’s internal affairs investigation into whether the officers violated departmental policy similarly cleared Togami, Kinoshita and Min of using excessive force. The department’s Professional Standards Office considered the allegations, but the administrative charges were ultimately dismissed by HPD’s administrative review board on Nov. 7, 2013, after hearing from the officers and their union representative.

According to the PSO report, the investigation took longer than expected in part because the internal affairs investigator wasn’t able to interview the officers involved in a timely fashion due to conflicting shift schedules and the fact that they worked in different districts. The investigator conducted his first interviews with Togami, Kinoshita and Min 14 to 17 months after Torres’ death.

Togami, Kinoshita and Min are all still with the department, although they no longer work in in the patrol district covering Kapolei, Nanakuli and Waianae, according to HPD. Togami, a sergeant with 25 years of service, is assigned to Wahiawa. Officer Min is in Kaneohe. And Kinoshita, a detective, is assigned to Waikiki.

Civil Beat sought comment from all three officers through HPD, but did not receive a response.

‘They Did Everything Wrong’

Torres’ death cost taxpayers $1.4 million in a legal settlement approved by the Honolulu City Council, but attorneys representing his family say the dollar amount doesn’t necessarily reflect an admission of guilt by HPD. Part of the reason for the hefty fee had to do with the fact that Torres was young and well-paid through his union job. He still had future earning potential.

George Burke and Michael Green were hired by Michele Torres to file a lawsuit against the city. Aaron Torres’ sister, Tassa, also filed a lawsuit. The two cases were combined, and the settlement was split between them.

Burke said the fact that Aaron Torres was killed in front of his family — a traumatic experience by any measure — played a significant role in securing the large settlement.

But he also believes the city’s attorneys recognized problems in how the HPD officers handled the incident.

Brian Torres watched his brother’s deadly struggle with police on Feb. 20, 2012, in which officers wrestled him to the ground and suffocated him while handcuffed.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“They basically squeezed him to death despite the fact that he was handcuffed and shackled and face down in the dirt,” Burke said. “He wasn’t going to stand up and run. He wasn’t going to hurt anybody. The only person he would have hurt was himself.”

But the settlement — and for such a large amount — would seem to contradict HPD and the prosecutor’s office conclusions that the officers acted appropriately.

Burke questioned how the department could honestly review the handling of the Torres case with an eye toward improving policies and procedures if HPD investigators found that the officers didn’t do anything wrong.

Green, however, said he wasn’t surprised by HPD’s conclusion, particularly when it came to disciplining the officers.

“Did you expect them to find excessive use of force and fire the cops? That doesn’t happen,” Green said. “You got to shoot a guy five times before they’ll do that.”

Lawson, a long-time criminal defense attorney who has handled a number of civil rights and police misconduct cases, said the officers clearly weren’t following best practices in police restraint when they “hog-tied” Torres and left him face down in the dirt.

Tassa Torres’ attorneys, Andre Wooten and Daphne Barbee-Wooten, hired an expert witness in police procedures and use of force policy to independently review the Torres case. Glenn Walp’s 29-page report was a scathing critique of Togami, Kinoshita and Min as well as the department. He accused the officers and HPD of “gross negligence.”

Walp, a veteran police officer who had worked as a police chief in Arizona, focused much of his report on the fact that the officers didn’t recognize that Torres was suffering symptoms of excited delirium, which HPD says they had been trained to do. Some of the signs include high body temperature, hallucinations, violent and combative behavior and great strength. People experiencing excited delirium, Walp wrote, can suddenly collapse and die, especially under the application of physical force.

“Because Officers Togami, Min and Kinoshita apparently did not have any knowledge or understanding that they were dealing with a citizen suffering from Excited Delirium Syndrome, they did everything wrong (based on contemporary professional police standards) in addressing this crucial emergency medical incident,” Walp wrote.

“The instant case involving the death of Aaron Torres represents a classical case where appropriate professional preventative police measures (according to contemporary professional police standards) should have been employed to prevent the death of Torres,” Walp added. “However, based on the totality of the facts and circumstances of this case, these measures were not employed, which resulted in minimum, contributing to the death of Torres, and at a maximum, the death of Torres.

“This is, in my opinion, GROSS NEGLIGENCE.”

Kenneth Lawson, an associate faculty specialist at the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law, had similar problems with HPD’s use of force in the Torres case. He reviewed the 714 pages of police reports provided to Civil Beat by HPD, and said he found the delay in the internal investigation and the redactions to be “appalling.”

Click on the image to read the expert witness report on Aaron Torres’ death.

Lawson, a long-time criminal defense attorney who has handled a number of civil rights and police misconduct cases, said the officers clearly weren’t following best practices in police restraint when they “hog-tied” Torres and left him face down in the dirt.

For years, law enforcement agencies have been taught not to leave people in a prone position for longer than necessary so as to avoid sudden in-custody deaths from “positional asphyxiation,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice even warns that prone restraint should be avoided, and that if needed “subjects should be closely and continuously monitored,” a DOJ report says.

But Lawson is also troubled by the extensive redactions in the records released by HPD. He said it’s nearly impossible to discern what actually happened the morning Aaron Torres died and whether HPD properly investigated the case.

Lawson said he was particularly bothered that it took HPD’s internal affairs investigator so long to interview Togami, Kinoshita and Min. And the fact that their statements and police reports were almost completely blacked out raises concerns about a possible cover-up.

“It gives the impression to the reader that there must be something to hide. And there may not be,” Lawson said.

“What’s the big secret? What is so important that this has to be redacted?” he said. “Even if there had been mistakes made those mistakes can be rectified through better training and improvement of policies and procedures.”

The fact that Hawaii doesn’t have independent oversight of its police agencies when it comes to officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths creates a “suspicious atmosphere,” he said.

“How do you determine if the investigation was done properly if you can’t tell what was being said and how it’s being evaluated?” Lawson said. “It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘Just trust us. We know what we’re doing and it’s none of your business.’ And that’s not conducive to building trust between a police department and its community.”

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