What would you do if someone repeatedly shot holes in the windows and door of your home?

If you answer this question as we do — we would call the police — then you may wonder why Honolulu Police Department Chief Louis Kealoha did otherwise when these and other crimes occurred at his Kahala home in 2012-2013.

Kealoha took a full year to report the gunfire and, media reports say, he took his time because he believed he could handle the crimes on his own.

HPD Chief Kealoha during news conference concerning domestic violence on September 18, 2014

Police Chief Louis Kealoha found himself in the middle of a family feud after his mailbox was stolen last summer.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The main responsibility of the police chief is to protect and serve the people of Honolulu.

Kealoha should have responded to these felonies with much greater urgency — by opening an investigation into criminal conduct that may well have put other people in our community at risk.

There is no justification for his failure to report serious crimes, no matter how bitter the family conflict that may have motivated them.

If Kealoha placed his own personal interest and those of his wife and family over the safety of the public whom he has sworn to serve, then we may ask whether he should continue to lead the 2100 full-time officers who comprise the 20th largest police force in America.

More broadly, Kealoha’s failure to report serious crimes illustrates much that is wrong with HPD. Too often, Honolulu police act as if they are above the law. Too often, Honolulu police act as if they are the law.

This essay focuses on two issues that have recently attracted attention to the questionable performance of the Honolulu Police Department: Domestic violence and police use of lethal force.

Both problems suggest the need for deep reform of Hawaii’s most important law enforcement institution. In our view, the most important change is the establishment of an effective institution of citizen oversight. At present, HPD does not have one.

Domestic Violence and Double Standards

The first problem concerns equality under law.

On September 8, Darren Cachola, an 18-year veteran of HPD and a sergeant in Kalihi, pummeled his girlfriend with both fists at Restaurant Kuni in Waipahu. Witnesses who saw this assault intervened on the victim’s behalf, but when other police arrived at the scene they did not arrest their colleague or even file a report about the case, thereby violating HPD’s own rules about how to handle this kind of incident.

Cachola’s assault became public knowledge only after release of a surveillance video from the restaurant, some of which can be seen here.

The assault at Restaurant Kuni may not have been Cachola’s first experience with intimate partner violence.

According to court records, his former wife filed a request for a temporary restraining order against him alleging that Cachola kicked her in the back while she was pregnant, drove 30 feet with her hanging out of his car window and threatened to kill her if he ever got arrested so that “it will be worth it.”

Chief Kealoha has said he did not know about these and other alleged cases of domestic violence involving Cachola, but Kealoha is married to a local prosecutor, Katherine Kealoha, who once represented Cachola in a domestic abuse case when she was in private practice.

Moreover, if Kealoha did not know about Cachola’s prior history, the implication would be even more troubling, for that would mean HPD does not have effective policies in place to keep track of officers’ behavior.

An Internet survey by the Honolulu Star Advertiser on September 22 asked, “Do you trust Police Chief Louis Kealoha and HPD to conduct impartial investigations into domestic abuse situations involving their officers?” A total of 1,815 responses were received, and 75 percent said “No.”

Representatives of the local Domestic Violence Action Center revealed that 38.7 percent of murders in Hawaii between 2008 and 2012 were related to domestic violence.

There are good reasons for this skepticism. After the video of Cachola’s violence went viral, Kealoha held a press conference in which he said that his “knee-jerk” reaction was to want to make an arrest, but he went on to stress the need to gather more evidence and look more closely at the law before arriving at a decision about how to proceed.

This might have been an acceptable explanation if it were standard operating procedure for HPD to be so deliberate before making an arrest. But it is not. If the person doing the punching had been anyone other than a policeman — or, perhaps, the friend or relative of one — he likely would have been arrested faster than you can say “double standard.”

In a hearing at the state capitol on Sept. 30, representatives of the local Domestic Violence Action Center revealed that 38.7 percent of murders in Hawaii between 2008 and 2012 were related to domestic violence.

This is more than double the national percentage of 16.3. And in 2010, domestic violence accounted for half of all murders in Hawaii. This state’s most serious crime would be dramatically impacted by a different approach to policing — one informed by national best practices which stress prevention and intervention.

HPD claims to have “zero tolerance” for domestic violence in its ranks. That is an impressive slogan, but it is untrue.

In reality, no HPD officer has been fired for domestic violence in 14 years even though HPD’s own internal affairs unit investigates about 50 domestic violence case complaints against its officers each year, and even though the National Center for Women and Policing reports that domestic violence is two to four times more common among police than among American families generally.

Police Use of Force

The second problem that has drawn criticism of HPD is its use of lethal force.

In all societies, police are given the general right to use coercive force because some problems cannot be solved without it. But police on Oahu have been using lethal force with troubling frequency.

We analyzed media reports of shootings by HPD from June 2010 through August 2014, and we found 22 incidents in which police shot their weapons during this 50-month period. Eleven of those shootings were fatal. This is a per capita fatality rate of 2.7 persons killed per million population per year, which is almost four times higher than the national average of 0.7 “justifiable killings” by American police in 2012.

Danger is a real occupational risk for police in all jurisdictions, but as large American cities go, Honolulu is one of the safest, with little violent crime and some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. Police on Oahu should not have reason to shoot as often as their counterparts do in other parts of the country.

Why, then, are there so many fatal shootings by police in Honolulu?

The media reports we examined show that HPD shootings disproportionately occur around motor vehicles. In fact, 13 of the 22 HPD shootings were directed at persons in motor vehicles, and five of those shootings were fatal.

The primary source of information about police shootings is the police who were at the scene, and usually they claim that they fired their guns because a driver put them or other citizens in danger.

Cases like Cachola’s make the public wonder whether these police accounts can be believed. So do Chief Kealoha’s decisions not to report the shootings at his Kahala home.

Statistics from the Honolulu Police Commission create further reason to wonder about the police use of force. The HPC is made up of seven persons appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Members serve staggered five-year terms and receive no compensation.

Is it plausible that only one out of every 30 complaints about police use of force is sufficiently credible to warrant a finding of fact against the police?

A review of the current members reveals that none has a background in criminal justice. The HPC Chair runs an industrial chemical company, and other members include a lobbyist for the hotel industry, a life coach, a local restaurateur and an employee of the carpenters union.

By comparison, the Civilian Complaint Review Board that provides citizen oversight of the New York Police Department has seven lawyers with criminal justice experience, three community activist/organizers, one law enforcement agent and one person with experience as a criminal defense lawyer and a police officer.

The HPC needs knowledge and expertise about policing because it is asked to perform several crucial functions. HPC appoints and may remove the chief of police, reviews HPD rules and regulations, reviews the chief’s annual budget and makes recommendations about it to the mayor, and “receives, considers, and investigates charges brought by the public against the conduct of the department or any of its members and submits a written report of its findings to the Chief of Police.”

HPC has reported that from 2008 to 2012, 148 citizens filed complaints about police use of force.

These complaints were placed in several categories: Excessive use of force, unnecessary use of force, unnecessary use of oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray) and unnecessary use of a firearm. In this five-year period, only five of the 148 complaints were “sustained” by the HPC (3.4 percent), and none of the six complaints about “unnecessary use of firearm” was sustained.

Is it plausible that only one out of every 30 complaints about police use of force is sufficiently credible to warrant a finding of fact against the police?

HPC does not have the knowledge, staff, budget or independence to conduct serious investigations into complaints about police use of force or other police practices. This is a big part of Honolulu’s police problem.

As it is currently constituted, HPC does not provide meaningful citizen oversight. Sociologically, its main function is to cast a halo of legitimacy over HPD.

This needs to change.

Leave it to the Local Prosecutor?

City and County of Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro contends that his office can be trusted to be the main mechanism of accountability with respect to police shootings and other police activities.

But under Kaneshiro and his predecessor Peter Carlisle, local prosecutors have been easy on police and opaque with the public about important police issues.

Of 512 HPD disciplinary cases between 2000 and 2012, only 33 resulted in criminal conviction (6.4 percent), and only five of those led to the dismissal of officers. Many of these cases involved serious felonies such as sexual assault and domestic violence. Would you be able to keep your job if you were convicted of a serious crime?

The lenient treatment of police officers can be partly explained by a structural tension that makes it difficult for prosecutors to hold police accountable. Prosecutors must maintain good relations with police because they rely on police for evidence to make cases and win convictions. This imperative creates strong incentives for prosecutors to be soft on police misconduct — in Hawaii and in other states.

It is also notable that Chief Kealoha’s wife Katherine was head of the Honolulu Prosecutor’s career criminal division until recently going on personal leave. Such an arrangement is problematic at best, and runs real risk of triggering a conflict of interest particularly when the local prosecuting attorney’s HPD oversight employs in a key position the wife of Honolulu’s top police official.

Opportunity for Reform?

Recent events have raised the issue of HPD accountability in sharp form, but this issue is hardly new.

Local analysts have described and lamented police problems for many years, as has the “In the Name of the Law” series of articles by Nick Grube in Civil Beat, which should be read by anyone interested in police issues.

Reforming the police is difficult, but some things do work. One instructive summary of what has proven successful and unsuccessful in other jurisdictions is The New World of Police Accountability, by professors Samuel E. Walker and Carol A. Archbold.

This book and other scholarship suggests that successful citizen oversight tends to have certain features in common, including investigative and subpoena powers that enable civilian review boards to obtain information about policing that would otherwise be impossible to obtain.

HPD lacks accountability to the law and to the public.

Fixing this problem will require political will. It also will require policy changes, particularly a strengthening of the Honolulu Police Commission.

HPD has endured many previous scandals without making meaningful changes to its standard operating procedures. Unless the people of Hawaii and their elected representatives bring sustained pressure to bear on HPD, police will ride out the present crisis too, and another opportunity for improving government and public safety will be lost.

 

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

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