Practice Areas

Police agree to alcohol policy

January 7, 2004

By Curtis Lum, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITER

Victim's parents settle lawsuit

The parents of 19-year-old Dana Ambrose, who was killed in October 2000 when an off-duty police officer slammed his car into hers, said yesterday they were satisfied with a settlement that does not give them money, but promises to improve the Police Department's policies on alcohol abuse.

Rod and Susan Ambrose of California filed the federal lawsuit against the city and Honolulu Police Department after the death of their daughter, claiming the city knew that former Officer Clyde Arakawa had a history of alcohol problems but did nothing to treat or discipline him.

Arakawa was found guilty of manslaughter after he ran a red light and crashed into Ambrose's car after a night of drinking.

"I am pleased that Chief Donohue and the Honolulu Police Department are aware of the fact that their policies, procedures and practices don't always work. Had they worked prior to October of 2000, Dana Ambrose might still be alive today," Rod Ambrose said by phone.

The city is not admitting any wrongdoing, but Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue said yesterday he hoped the settlement would bring closure to the incident.

"Our hearts really go out to the Ambrose family," Donohue said.

"When you look at the total situation, it's a tragedy for an officer with nearly 25 years of service, looking forward to retirement, who is now in prison. He made some bad choices, and the consequences are here."

Donohue and attorneys for the Ambrose family announced a settlement of the lawsuit yesterday. The agreement calls for the department to implement a program to identify and treat officers with an alcohol problem.

The department's current substance-abuse policy does not include alcohol.

At Arakawa's trial, city prosecutor Peter Carlisle introduced a 1992 incident in which Arakawa was found drunk and passed out on the floor of a stranger's house in Kailua. Carlisle used the case as the foundation for the manslaughter conviction, arguing that Arakawa knew it was dangerous for him to drive while drunk.

Arakawa is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Attorneys Eric Seitz, who filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of the Ambroses, and Rick Fried, who is representing the family in state civil matters, said money was never the issue.

"The purpose of the Ambroses in bringing this action was really not monetary at all," Fried said. "It was to improve the policies and procedures, so they hoped that something that happened to Dana can be prevented in the future."

Seitz added that the settlement was a good-faith agreement and "there is no enforceability of what's been promised."

But Susan Ambrose, speaking by phone from her home in California, said she was pleased with the agreement.

"We really hope that this opens the door between the community and the Police Department to work together to resolve these kinds of issues," she said. "We think that it will. We hope that this is a catalyst for not only the police chief but for the community to be proactive in doing something for the community that will be healthy and that will prevent" a similar tragedy.

The settlement came in the form of a two-page letter from Donohue to the Ambroses in which the chief apologized for the accident and said the department had conducted a thorough investigation into the collision and handling of the investigation by his officers, which had resulted in disciplinary action.

Donohue also assured the Ambroses that alcohol would be included in the department's substance-abuse program of early identification, counseling, psychological evaluations, peer support, employee intervention and assistance, administrative oversight and review, and disciplinary actions.

Donohue and the attorneys cautioned that the new program was subject to negotiation with the State of Hawai`i Organization of Police Officers. But Seitz said the union is open to the idea.

Seitz said the city would pay him $5,000 to cover a fraction of the expenses incurred in pressing the lawsuit.

The only remaining lawsuit is the Ambroses' against Arakawa. Lawsuits against two restaurants that served Arakawa alcohol on the night of the accident have been settled out of court. Fried declined to disclose the amount of damages in either case.