The Honolulu Police Commission will not launch its own investigation into Police Chief Louis Kealoha for his actions related to a family dispute involving his prosecutor wife and her estranged uncle, who they accused of stealing their mailbox.
On Wednesday, the commission held its regularly scheduled meeting with Kealoha to ask him about recent events, which included a referral by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the FBI to investigate the chief and the Honolulu Police Department for possible wrongdoing related to the case.
While much of the discussion was held behind closed doors, Commission Chair Ron Taketa spoke to the media afterward. He said it would be inappropriate for the commission to launch its own probe while federal authorities are considering the same.
“The chief has always kept us abreast of everything that’s been going on in this family dispute,” Taketa said. “As of now we really do not know where this case is going to go or where an investigation is going to lead. So we really have to wait until the authorities complete all of their investigation before we can make a decision based on the facts rather than rumor and speculation.”
He added that there was no indication of any wrongdoing on the part of Kealoha and no reason to pursue disciplinary action, adding that the conflict seems to be related to a family fight over money and is based on innuendo.
“Realistically this has nothing to do with his management of the police department,” Taketa said. “It’s strictly the result of a family dispute that unfortunately has spilled over to the public.”
Many questions have been raised about Kealoha’s involvement with the mailbox case after a federal public defender accused the chief and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, of trying to frame Gerard Puana for ripping it off its pedestal in front of their home in June 2013.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office added fuel to these allegations when it dismissed the federal charge against Puana shortly after the chief caused a mistrial on the witness stand by improperly revealing details about the defendant’s criminal past. Taketa said the chief has apologized for this, saying it was not intentional.
The case is linked to a lawsuit Puana filed against Katherine Kealoha that alleges she took more than $200,000 from him and his 95-year-old grandmother. Some of that money, the suit alleges, went to paying for a $25,000 celebration at the Sheraton Waikiki when the chief was inaugurated.
Puana’s federal public defender, Alexander Silvert, has said that the Kealohas were trying to get his client convicted of the mailbox theft to help influence the civil trial.
The chief did not address the media or the public after the commission meeting and left through a back door. At the beginning, he said he would not comment on the matters at hand, and wished everyone happy holidays.
Several people testified in support of the chief and his department during the public portion of the meeting, including retired Assistant Chief Greg Lefcourt and former Police Chief Lee Donahue, who cautioned commissioners about jumping to conclusions.
Buzz Hong, a retired police officer and current member of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board of directors, also spoke in support of the department.
“I certainly do not agree that we are incompetent. I believe we do a good job.” — Honolulu Police Commission Chair Ron Taketa
But Kealoha’s most passionate defender was Tenari Maafala, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers. Maafala told the commission that the union “wholeheartedly” stood behind the police chief and his commanders.
Maafala berated the media for presenting a “skewed” view of the facts in an attempt to “sell news.” He said this has resulted in an unfair, negative perception of the chief, his department and all of its officers, including Maafala.
“I’m not a fan of perception, I will never ever be, because that’s not reality,” Maafala said. “Reality is walking in the shoes of a police officer who sees how ugly paradise is with the criminal element out there. People don’t see the things that we see. People don’t go home with the things that we see.”
Much skepticism already surrounds the commission and whether it’s an effective tool for public oversight. Several lawmakers have called the commission ineffectual and have even said they will introduce legislation to increase police accountability as a result.
A number of high profile cases have played out in the media.
In September, a video surfaced of Sgt. Darren Cachola repeatedly striking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant. This set off criticism among domestic violence service providers, female lawmakers and others who felt that HPD needed to do a better job handling abuse cases.
In October a member of a specialized crime fighting unit was caught on videotape attacking a man inside a Chinatown game room. The officer, Vince Morre, kicked the man in the head and later threw a stool at him without making an arrest. Another officer, Nelson Tamayori, stood by and watched.
Taketa downplayed lawmakers’ concerns and defended the commission for staying true to its mission, which includes evaluating the performance of the police chief and investigating citizen complaints against officers.
“I certainly do not agree that we are incompetent,” Taketa said. “I believe we do a good job. The seven commissioners are volunteer commissioners and we are very dedicated.”
Commissioners are appointed to five-year terms by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. They include Taketa, Cha Thompson, Helen Hamada, Max Sword, Eddie Flores Jr., Luella Costaeles and Marc Tilker.