Former Honolulu police officer Teddy Van Lerberghe, who was indicted last month on suspicion of repeatedly sexually assaulting a minor, is fighting for more than his freedom.

He’s also trying to keep his job.

Van Lerberghe pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of first- and third-degree sexual assault after allegations surfaced that for four years he molested a victim under the age of 14.

HPD Honolulu Police Department Building1. 5 may 2016.

The union’s collective bargaining agreement allows officers to appeal disciplinary actions to a third-party arbitrator who can — and often does — overturn a police chief’s decision.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Honolulu Police Department fired Van Lerberghe before he was formally charged, but the state’s police union has appealed that termination. Van Lerberghe is now awaiting an arbitration proceeding to see if he will be allowed to return to the police force, potentially with back pay.

And Van Lerberghe is not alone.

A Civil Beat analysis of police disciplinary records from 2014 to 2016 found at least 16 HPD officers who were terminated by police officials but are still going through the process to have that decision reversed.

Among the discharged officers are a number accused of serious crimes, such as domestic violence, kidnapping, theft and sexual assault. Two others face termination for trying to cover up an off-duty shooting by a fellow officer.

Recycling Bad Officers

Another officer who could be reinstated is Darren Cachola, who was fired after he was caught on surveillance video in 2014 attacking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.

That incident sparked widespread outrage in Hawaii, particularly among victims’ advocates and women lawmakers, who felt that HPD wasn’t taking domestic violence seriously. It also spurred calls for more accountability and transparency within Honolulu’s police force.

But because of the strength of the union contract, Cachola, like Van Lerberghe, could one day be reinstated.

At the heart of their appeals is a collective bargaining agreement between the city and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

The contract, which applies to all counties and the state, allows officers to challenge a police department’s disciplinary action at several levels. If the union doesn’t like a decision it can appeal to a third-party arbitrator whose decree — which is made in secret — cannot be overturned.

“I’m extremely concerned,” said Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan. “If you’re recycling bad officers back into the rank-and-file there is the potential that you are increasing the risk of a lawsuit in your future.”

Sheehan has been one of the most outspoken members of the Honolulu Police Commission, which is the sole civilian oversight body for the department.

In fact, Sheehan is the only commissioner to vote against a lucrative payout for retired Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who left HPD after being named as a target in an ongoing federal public corruption probe that also includes his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor.

At a February commission meeting, Sheehan questioned Acting Honolulu Police Chief Cary Okimoto and his top deputies about the union grievance process, and worried aloud about the possibility that an arbitrator could reinstate a “sexual deviant.”

Sheehan also said she had concerns about another case in which an officer, who was caught on video body slamming a citizen, had his discharge reduced to a 30-day suspension.

Okimoto told Sheehan he understood her concerns, but said that there was little the department could do in response to an arbitrator’s decision.

“The perception makes it difficult for everyone in the department,” Okimoto said.

“We try to address discipline in the best way we can, but because of the collective bargaining agreement those people can get their jobs back or their days back and back pay. But we continue to take it seriously and mete out discipline as we see fit.”

SHOPO President Tenari Maafala did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for an interview.

Reversals Of Fortune

Each year, Hawaii’s four county police departments are required to submit an annual report to the Legislature detailing how many officers were suspended or terminated for misconduct.

Generally, few details are included in the reports outside of a summary of the allegations and the length of a suspension. There are no names or dates associated with the incidents.

But in 2014 the Legislature passed a law that required county police departments to include a bit more information in the annual misconduct reports, such as whether a case was referred to prosecutors or subject to union grievance proceedings.

It was the first time such information had been made publicly available.

A Civil Beat analysis of the new data found more than half of the 171 cases of officer misconduct HPD reported between 2014 and 2016 were appealed.

Civil Beat Data

While 46 of those 89 cases are still subject to ongoing grievance proceedings — including arbitration for Cachola and Van Lerberghe — most of the finalized cases have resulted in reduced punishment for the officer who went through the appeal process.

According to HPD’s reports, 30 of the 43 finalized disciplinary actions resulted in an officer having their discharge overturned or term of suspension reduced. Of the remaining 13 incidents, 10 were attributable to three officers who have since been discharged.

Five police officers who HPD wanted to fire got their jobs back, but served unpaid work suspensions of three to 20 days.

Here’s how those incidents were described in HPD’s annual report to the Legislature:

Officer name Summary of findings Suspension received
Peter Krog Pushed his wife onto the bed, grabbed her neck, and applied pressure to her nose. Threatened his wife while he pushed her neck and face down onto the bed. 20 days
Not available Submitted an overtime card that contained false information. Was untruthful to the District Court HPD officer. 20 days
Not available Failed to remain impartial during multiple incidents involving investigations and the issuance of citations. Conducted unofficial, unauthorized transactions on his mobile data computer. 20 days
Not available Was untruthful when he notified police dispatch that he conducted a traffic stop on the complainant. Wrote a citation for an expired safety inspection but did not issue it. Forged the complainant’s signature on the citation. Submitted the fraudulent citation to the court. 10 days
Not available Was involved in an argument with his girlfriend. Grabbed his girlfriend’s hair to prevent her from exiting a moving vehicle. Pushed her out of the vehicle after it stopped. 3 days

(HPD does not provide the names of suspended or fired officers in its annual reports to the Legislature. If an officer is fired or resigns in lieu of termination HPD will make the name available. Otherwise the information comes from court cases or the city prosecutor’s office.)

In addition to Cachola and Van Lerberghe, there are 14 other officers awaiting a decision on whether their terminations will be overturned. 

Some of those cases are still going through the union grievance process while others are still in arbitration.

Here’s a list of the officers HPD has recommended for termination, but whose appeals are pending:

Officer name Summary of findings
Nicholas Masagatani Committed criminal acts of a sexual nature against the victim.
Not available Viewed pornographic material on his computer.
Darren Cachola Yelled and swore at his girlfriend. While intoxicated, failed to leave a restaurant when asked to do so. Was observed on video engaged in physical altercations with his girlfriend.
Not available Handcuffed the individual and drove him to a location where he threatened him. Damaged the individual’s property. Did not submit appropriate incident reports to document his actions during the incident.
Teddy Van Lerberghe Committed multiple criminal acts of sexual assault against a relative who was a minor.
Not available Failed to report an off-duty shooting incident and failed to participate in the investigation. Provided false statements during the course of the investigation.
Not available Failed to report an off-duty shooting incident and failed to participate in the investigation. Provided false statements during the course of the investigation.
Leslie Morris Physically assaulted his wife during an argument. Was in possession of illegal narcotics and drug paraphernalia.
Not available Slapped and kicked his girlfriend during an argument.
Keoki Duarte Was involved in a verbal and physical altercation with the complainant after a motor vehicle collision. Was disrespectful toward a superior officer.
Not available Concealed items and exited a store without paying for them on two separate occasions.
Dennis Stone While off duty, collided into a center median guardrail. Did not stop, and failed to inform police dispatch. Operated his subsidized vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant. Was untruthful during the investigation. Was not in possession of his driver’s license. Refused to submit to a breath, blood or urine test.
Not available Was involved in a physical altercation with his ex-wife, causing numerous injuries. The incident occurred in the presence of a minor less than 14 years of age.
Brent Sylvester While off duty, rear-ended another vehicle and caused damage and bodily injury. Failed to stop and render aid or report the incident. Operated his vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant. Refused to submit to a breath, blood or urine test and a mandatory blood draw.
Not available Visited multiple physicians/practitioners and provided false information in order to obtain multiple prescriptions for the same/similar controlled substances. Filled every prescription, illegally possessing large quantities of those controlled substances.
Not available Was verbally abusive and used coarse language and excessive profanity toward his wife. Threatened his wife and made unwanted phone calls and sent unwanted text messages.

‘They Are Answerable To No One’

Acting Deputy Police Chief William Axt said the department is bound by the collective bargaining agreement with SHOPO.

That agreement is set to expire at the end of June, but at this point it’s unclear exactly how much of the grievance procedure will be on the negotiation table.

Axt reiterated many of Okimoto’s comments to Sheehan when talking with Civil Beat about arbitration. He said the process doesn’t leave HPD with many options, especially once a case is in the hands of an arbitrator.

At that point, he said the decision becomes final even if the department disagrees with it.

HPD Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan2. 4 jan 2017

Loretta Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor, believes that the arbitration process makes it harder for HPD to hold officers accountable for their actions.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“When we discipline someone or they’re discharged that’s our decision,” Axt said. “But sometimes that decision is taken out of our hands.”

City officials, both in the Department of Human Resources and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office, refused repeated attempts by Civil Beat to get information about how the arbitration process works and what it might be costing taxpayers.

Sheehan, however, is worried about more than just the potential cost to the city. She said that the arbitration process essentially undermines the wishes of a police chief who’s trying to hold officers accountable for their actions.

Under the current system, she said that even the most serious offenses, such as those that have already been overturned, can end with a slap on the wrist.

“In its collective bargaining agreement, the city and county has decided to replace the judgments of the chief of police with the judgment of unknown arbitrators,” Sheehan said. “Those unknown arbitrators make their decisions in secret and their decisions cannot be appealed.

“They are answerable to no one.”

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