Commission changes cast uncertainty over future of Honolulu’s police department

A chief under federal investigation. Concerns over police discipline. Some outspoken critics of the Honolulu Police Department.

Now, after Tuesday’s election, the board that watches over things has new power to take action. So what will it all mean moving forward?

The overwhelming vote, combined with a changing of the guard at the commission, are together a big shift for the board that oversees HPD. What will they do with it, and how will the chief respond? We got answers.

Voters want to see more done by the civilian board overseeing the Honolulu Police Department. A county charter amendment passed with the second-largest margin of the election, giving the commission greater authority to suspend or dismiss a chief.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told us he supported the charter amendment and said, “I am also hopeful the amendment will further improve the performance of top leadership at HPD.”

Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, are under federal grand jury investigation — now going on nearly a year and a half and no charges, no change in his role at the department, and no separate police commission investigation.

“I think it was a knee-jerk reaction to what’s happening with Chief Kealoha and the investigation,” Tenari Maafala, head of the police union SHOPO, said of the vote outcome. “Let this federal investigation run its course, and if Chief Kealoha or his wife is found guilty, it is what it is, but right now, they’re not. It’s just, in my humble opinion, political pressure and public perception.”

“The grand jury investigation is highly relevant to the chief’s future at the department,” said Loretta Sheehan, one of the newest commission members. She also explained how she would use of the new subpoena powers just voted in.

“I would like to start to read the relevant police reports that surround, for example, the theft of the mailbox,” Sheehan said. “I’d like to read ethics commission files. I’d like to be able to subpoena whatever trail I’m led on.”

“I support the independence of a police commission. I think the chief does, too,” said Myles Breiner, the attorney representing the Kealohas. “The point being that he wants to make sure that everything is heard that needs to be revealed or disclosed and his reputation remains intact.”

Some on the commission are also concerned about things like costly department-related lawsuits, civil-rights-related allegations, rape kit processing, crime mapping and transparency, and how the department promotes and disciplines officers.

“That’s something the police commission should look at in their annual evaluation of the chief,” Sheehan said. “My understanding is that we should be starting that process around the holiday season, around Christmas. I’ve been collecting information and responses and details that I think should be made part of the record when we do do that.”

“A number of officers have reached out to me to talk to me,” she said. “They’ve been very gracious confidentially. It’s time to really broaden the conversation and to bring it in front of the police commission.”

Sheehan says she’s even considering a confidential “360” staff feedback survey.

Back in the spring, Chief Kealoha sat down with me to answer questions about the grand jury investigation and the challenges facing the department. He declined to address the commissioner’s critiques on camera but gave us an extensive written reply.

(You can read his responses in their entirety at the bottom of this post.)

“Throughout my tenure, and as recently as last year, the Commission has given me positive ratings” Chief Kealoha told Always Investigating. “I have not been notified of concerns or given indications that my performance was subpar. If I had been given any prior notice, I would have acknowledged their concerns and made the changes for improvement.”

“Circumstantially, we can see there’s a problem,” Sheehan said. “If I see that morale is crumbling, if I see that there is a persistent and consistent pattern of misconduct by police officers, I take that really seriously, and the buck has to stop somewhere.

“Collectively the police commission would make a recommendation of what the rating should be,” Sheehan added, “whether it should be ‘exceeds expectations’ again, or whether it should be something far different.”

“If an unsatisfactory rating is given,” Chief Kealoha said, “I would like to be given the opportunity to respond and a chance to improve or correct any deficiencies.

“I have the utmost respect for the Commission,” the chief added. “We all want the same result, which is a positive outcome for the department. It makes sense to take into account all of the department’s accomplishments and progress when issuing a performance rating.”

The chief tells us he has made progress with domestic violence training and policies, community outreach, and attaining the highest national accreditation. He says that and more all needs to be taken into account in a performance rating.

Regardless of the rating, the vote essentially lowers the bar to let the commission fire the chief without cause. Before the vote, they would have had to prove maladministration, really bad leadership.

“The police commission should regardless every year consider carefully whether the chief should stay or go,” Sheehan said. “Have the confrontation.”

“That word in itself should not even be part of the discussion, if anything they should have discussions, not confrontations,” Maafala said. “Who would want to take a position like that when you cannot defend yourself? As a police officer, not knowing who is going to be my chief one day to the next, there is a chilling effect going down to the officers on the front lines because they’re not on steady ground.”

The amendment also broadens the board’s oversight to investigate officer misconduct.

“I saw that the police were not really being held accountable in a way that I thought they should be held accountable,” Sheehan said.

“They have got to understand that SHOPO, as the labor organization that represents the officers’ rights, their collective bargaining rights, is part of the solution,” Maafala said. “That’s something I hope the commission has vetted through and looked at completely.”

We’ll follow up in the coming weeks as the commission adds a new member, retired Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson, and chooses a new chairperson as current chair Ron Taketa’s term comes to an end. We’ll also keep an eye on the chief evaluation process and any movement on the federal investigation.

hpd chief louis kealoha (1)

Statement from Chief Louis Kealoha to Always Investigating:

“Our officers work hard every day of the year, 24/7, to make Honolulu safe for our residents and visitors. We are part of this community and we are proud that Honolulu is the safest large city in the nation when it comes to violent crime. I’m personally proud of the hard work and dedication that our officers bring to duty every single day. It is a privilege and honor to be their Chief.

Since we spoke back in April, the department has taken a number of steps to improve the level of service we provide to the community.

In the area of domestic violence, the department has increased officer training, updated department policies, and worked with victim advocates to better service victims. Officers now use a lethality assessment survey to determine the likelihood of future danger to victims. We are also piloting Safe on Scene, which provides immediate domestic violence counseling to victims at the scene.

The department now has technology that allows the public to contact 911 via text. Text-to-911 is a new service that allows users to send a text message to 911. It can be used when someone is unable to safely place a voice call, when someone has a medical emergency and cannot speak or hear, or when cellular coverage for voice service is weak or sporadic.

We’ve expanded our outreach into the community. We recently partnered with the social media platform Nextdoor to connect residents and officers within the same neighborhood. Coffee with a Cop, which we adopted from the Hawthorne police in California, has been a big hit with the public. It’s designed to promote positive public-police interactions through informal conversation in relaxed environments.

We’ve also continued to build on relationships with our partners at the federal, state, and city levels to ensure that Honolulu is ready to respond to any large-scale event or manmade or natural disaster. For example, for the recent conference on global environmental issues, the HPD led the traffic and security efforts to ensure that all participants, including heads of state from around the world, were protected and that all events went on as planned.”

Always Investigating asked for response on some commissioners weighing an unsatisfactory rating in the next performance evaluation:

“I have the utmost respect for the Commission. We all want the same result, which is a positive outcome for the department. It makes sense to take into account all of the department’s accomplishments and progress when issuing a performance rating.

If an unsatisfactory rating is given, I would like to be given the opportunity to respond and a chance to improve or correct any deficiencies.

The safety and security of our community has always been my priority. Each day I try my best to serve as a fair and dedicated leader and ensure that employees receive the support they need to succeed.

The department has made significant progress during my tenure as Chief. We’ve attained the highest national accreditation possible for a police department, we’ve provided security for the President and countless other dignitaries, we’ve made significant strides in the areas of police technology, domestic violence, sex assault, and much more. Our partnerships with the community have expanded, providing more information, encouraging crime prevention, and promoting community, problem-solving resources.

Throughout my tenure, and as recently as last year, the Commission has given me positive ratings. I have not been notified of concerns or given indications that my performance was subpar. If I had been given any prior notice, I would have acknowledged their concerns and made the changes for improvement.

I respect the Commission and its opinion. If they want to change the leadership of this department based on maladministration, I would request the opportunity to review their comments, respond to them, and be allowed a chance to make changes to improve.

I hope that the Commission takes these things into consideration before rendering a decision.”

Always Investigating asked for response specific to Commissioner Sheehan’s proposal to initiate something similar to a “360” confidential survey of staff as part of the next chief review:

“I’ve always welcomed feedback on my performance because there’s always room for improvement and growth. However, I’m not sure that a 360 survey is the best way to measure leadership. A 360 survey is usually used as a developmental tool, to see what is working and what requires improvement. I would like other methods considered, and the best one should be used to rate and evaluate my leadership effectiveness. I would also like the department’s accomplishments to be considered as part of any evaluation.”

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