Mayor Kirk Caldwell won’t discuss recent events surrounding Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha’s stolen mailbox or any of the questions it has raised about whether the public can trust that its police department is being run properly.
The FBI has been asked by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate how the Honolulu Police Department handled the missing mailbox case, as well as look into a related family dispute between the chief’s wife, Katherine Kealoha, and her estranged uncle, Gerard Puana.
A federal public defender contends the chief and his wife, who is a city prosecutor, tried to frame Puana for the mailbox theft to discredit him in a lawsuit he had filed against her. Puana and his 95-year-old mother – Katherine Kealoha’s grandmother — allege that she took more than $200,000 from them.
Chief Kealoha caused a mistrial when he inappropriately revealed details about Puana’s criminal past to jurors. Puana’s defense attorneys also accuse the police department of withholding evidence and falsifying reports.
The chief isn’t talking about the case or allegations of corruption within his department. The Honolulu Police Commission discussed the matter behind closed doors Wednesday, then announced publicly that it would not get involved until the FBI finished looking into it.
Commission chair Ron Taketa called the allegations little more than “rumor and speculation.” He went on to say that he believed the chief at his word and did not want to get involved in “a family affair.”
Civil Beat wanted to know what Caldwell, as the top executive in the city and its highest-ranking elected official, thinks of his police department in light of recent events and how the public can be confident that the agency is being managed effectively.
Caldwell has the authority to appoint members of the police commission, which has the ability to hire and fire the chief. The mayor also has control over HPD’s budget, which he can use as leverage or as a means to shape policy.
The mayor first refused to speak to us via his spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke.
We asked again to talk to the mayor Wednesday when the chief appeared before the police commission. Broder Van Dyke also declined that interview request, and did not respond to questions about why the mayor was unwilling to talk about the situation.
Caldwell attended a press conference Thursday about cost overruns in the city’s $5.2 billion rail project. He told the media that he would be willing to answer questions about other issues after addressing the rail project.
But when asked by Civil Beat to comment on Kealoha, Caldwell had little to say.
“It’s in litigation and it’s a private matter,” Caldwell said, “so we can’t talk about it.”
Caldwell is also refusing to talk about the police department and the police commission outside of the case involving the chief’s wife and her uncle.
Kealoha’s handling of police matters has been questioned several times in recent months, raising concerns that the department lacks effective top management.
Officer Vince Morre was caught on tape in October attacking a man inside a Chinatown game room while his colleagues watched. The FBI is now investigating that case for possible civil rights violations.
Caldwell has not said much about that problem, either.
But the mayor did speak out in September when video surfaced showing Sgt. Darren Cachola repeatedly striking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.
After that incident, concerned legislators asked Kealoha to answer for his handling of domestic abuse cases, both within his department as well as when officers responded to domestic violence calls. The mayor reacted strongly, too, and told reporters that he had reached out to Kealoha to tell him to “get out in front of this and treat it with the utmost importance.”
Caldwell expressed concern about the department’s handling of the officers who responded to Cachola incident but did not arrest him or even file a report. Caldwell called for a full investigation and “extreme action,” including termination and arrest, if any wrongdoing was found.
“I think anytime something like this happens there is a lack of trust,” Caldwell said. “People get worried. It’s our job as public servants, my job as a public servant, to reestablish that trust through actions taken.”