City attorneys asked a federal judge Tuesday to reject a request for a deposition of Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha in a lawsuit over the police killing of Sheldon Haleck, a military veteran who died in front of Iolani Palace last year.

The attorney for Haleck’s family said the case merits the chief’s deposition and added that he wanted to obtain it before the possible indictment of the chief, who is under federal investigation for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

That case stems from allegations that Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, framed her uncle for the theft of their mailbox. It has since expanded to look at other allegations of wrongdoing that could involve other officers.

Sheldon Haleck was a honorably discharged from the Hawaii Air National Guard after 15 years of service, according to family attorneys. He suffered from mental illness and had a history of drug use.

Sheldon Haleck was honorably discharged from the Hawaii Air National Guard after 15 years of service, according to family attorneys. He suffered from mental illness and had a history of drug use.

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The Kealohas have filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that “unfounded, vindictive, unsubstantiated and illegal investigations” of them by the Honolulu Ethics Commission spurred the federal criminal probe. The chief has since asked the city to hire outside legal counsel to represent him in other cases in which he’s named as a defendant so as to avoid any conflicts of interest arising from his lawsuit against the city. 

Attorney Eric Seitz, who represents Haleck’s family, said all the legal wrangling is likely what has city officials worried about the chief answering any of his questions in a deposition that could subsequently be used in other cases, civil or criminal.

The chief has asked the city to hire outside legal counsel to represent him in other cases so as to avoid any conflicts of interest arising from his lawsuit against the city.

There are several civil cases in which the chief is a defendant and is being represented by the city’s Department of Corporation Counsel. The Honolulu City Council is currently looking at hiring an outside law firm to represent him.

The Kealohas have already hired Honolulu attorneys Kevin Sumida and Myles Breiner. Sumida is their attorney in their civil action against the city. Breiner is their criminal defense attorney.

“They’re afraid that if they throw him to the wolves, or anybody later alleges that they’re throwing him to the wolves, that there are going to be severe recriminations,” Seitz said of the city’s attorneys. “Because the correspondence going back and forth between the chief’s (private) lawyer and Corporation Counsel has been very vituperative about that fact that the city shouldn’t be representing him, they shouldn’t be doing this, they’re going to sell him out and so on.”

A Death On King Street

Seitz admitted that questioning the police chief in a deposition is a rare circumstance. In fact, he said that he’s only requested to do so twice in the past 45 years. But he said the Haleck case is unique in that it involves allegations of a cover-up as well as what he described in court as “frightening” deficiencies in police policy and procedure.

Haleck, 38, died after a struggle with police officers on King Street in March 2015. According to the Honolulu Police Department, Haleck was acting erratically and running through traffic in dark-colored clothing. An HPD press release described Haleck as being “combative” and “disorderly.”

Seitz said Haleck was pepper-sprayed 12 times in the face before officers used a Taser to subdue him. He said officers deployed their Tasers against him three times.

An autopsy found that Haleck had methamphetamine in his system and that his struggle with the police was too much for his body to handle. Honolulu’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, finding that if the officers hadn’t forced Haleck into submission, he might have survived.

Seitz said after Tuesday’s proceeding that the dearth of information released by police following Haleck’s death raised suspicions and did not compare favorably to jurisdictions on the mainland where mayors and police chiefs often speak up about the need for a thorough investigation after a high-profile police shooting or in-custody death at the hands of officers.

Sheldon Haleck seen on a police taser video.

Sheldon Haleck seen on a police taser video the night he died.

Honolulu Police Department

“This police chief basically did nothing,” Seitz said. “He responded in no way to the family, responded in no way to the public and responded in no way to the media, so that’s what’s of concern to us. … Immediately, instead of figuring out whether this killing was justified, they basically circled the wagons to figure out how we can defend ourselves.”

Seitz argued many of these same points before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Mansfield and provided some specifics about what he called “shocking” discoveries that he said warranted an opportunity to depose the chief.

Seitz said Haleck was pepper-sprayed 12 times in the face before officers used a Taser to subdue him. He said officers deployed their Tasers against him three times.

While Kealoha was not directly involved in any of the incidents that led to Haleck’s death, Seitz said that he was was responsible for implementing proper protocols, such as for use of force, and ensuring that officers are properly trained. He noted none of the officers was disciplined and that Kealoha and other top police officials had signed off on their use of force reports.

Seitz said he was concerned that federal authorities would indict Kealoha before he had a chance to depose him. If that were to happen, he said the chief would have the option of evoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, stymying any efforts to depose him.

The City Responds

Deputy Corporation Counsel Traci Morita told the judge during Tuesday’s proceeding that there was no need for Seitz to question Kealoha, saying the information being sought could be obtained by interviewing other members of the police force.

She said Seitz was “sensationalizing” the deficiencies that he claims to have found in the Honolulu Police Department’s internal review of Haleck’s death.

HPD Chief Louis Kealoha closeup. 7 sept 2016

Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Morita acknowledged that there are a lot of other issues at play outside of the Haleck case, including whether the city would be hiring outside legal counsel to represent Kealoha to avoid conflicts of interest while defending the city from the Kealoha’s civil claim. And if Mansfield does grant Seitz the opportunity to interrogate Kealoha, she asked that the questions be as narrowly constructed as possible.

“We want to know what specific … questions does he have,” Morita said. “What questions does he need to ask that no one else at HPD knows? It really needs to be that specific.”

Morita declined to comment after Tuesday’s proceeding and directed questions to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, who said the city did not want to comment about ongoing litigation.

Judge Mansfield did not make a decision Tuesday on whether he would allow Seitz to question Kealoha, and instead will issue a written order.

Seitz has said he’s seeking a judgment of at least $6 million in the case, which is about the same amount of money the city of Baltimore paid to the family of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from spinal cord injuries after being arrested by the police.

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