Embattled Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha should face tough questions next week from the people who control the fate of his job.
If he doesn’t, state lawmakers are poised to rewrite the rules to ensure there’s more accountability for him and his department.
Kealoha is scheduled to go before the Honolulu Police Commission during a meeting Dec. 17.
It will be his first time talking with commissioners since making headlines last week when he made improper statements in a federal criminal case involving family members, causing a mistrial and sparking calls for a full-blown corruption investigation of the Honolulu Police Department.
But the chief has also been in the crosshairs recently for a number of other high profile cases involving officers behaving badly, including an alleged domestic violence incident caught on tape and another concerning an assault in a Chinatown game room.
Honolulu Police Commission Executive Officer Gregory Gilmartin said Commission Chair Ron Taketa did not want to comment about Kealoha’s recent troubles involving the mistrial.
Gilmartin did say, however, that Taketa and the rest of the volunteer commissioners are “aware of the circumstances” and “reviewing the matter.”
State Sen. Will Espero said the commission has a responsibility to question Kealoha about these incidents to help the public regain trust in its police department.
He said this is especially important given the current national discourse regarding police actions, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio, and New York City where officers killed three black males, including a 12-year-old boy.
“I just think we need some type of meaningful oversight on police conduct and use of force.” — Hawaii Sen. Laura Thielen
“The police commission is in a position to do something and the public is now watching,” Espero said. “The trust in our police department has dropped and the police chief needs to be held accountable.”
Espero chairs the Senate’s Public Safety Committee, and has serious misgivings about police transparency and accountability.
Last year, he introduced and passed a bill that will require county police departments to reveal more information about officer-involved misconduct in annual reports to the Legislature.
He also pushed a bill that would create a new oversight and licensing board for law enforcement officers in an attempt to provide another check on police power. While that bill did not pass he told Civil Beat he intends to introduce a similar measure in 2015.
He’s skeptical that county police commissions can be an effective means of proving oversight.
For instance, the Honolulu Police Commission has been criticized for being a feeble organization when it comes to corralling corruption and wrongdoing within the department.
The commission only takes citizen complaints about issues, such as rude behavior, profanity and the use of force. The most egregious cases are often passed on to HPD’s internal affairs division that operates separately from the commission.
Few if any details are then released about what disciplinary actions are taken against offending officers. What’s known, however, is that it can be extremely difficult to get bad cops off the force.
The only true power the police commission has is over the police chief, because it can hire and fire the chief.
State Sen. Laura Thielen says she doesn’t have much faith in the police commission after learning about its duties and responsibilities during a September hearing in which lawmakers grilled officials about HPD’s handling of domestic violence cases.
She told Civil Beat she is particularly concerned that the commission reappointed Kealoha to a five-year term without much public discussion or fanfare.
The commission unanimously decided in February to reappoint Kealoha even though his first term didn’t expire until November.
Thielen found this particularly troubling considering the recent outcry surrounding the case of Sgt. Darren Cachola, who was caught on a restaurant surveillance tape beating up his girlfriend. Officers who responded to a domestic violence abuse call didn’t file a report.
Like Espero she now wants to see more oversight of the police force, although she’s skeptical of the police commission.
“To me they’re not taking their public accountability role seriously,” Thielen said. “I just think we need some type of meaningful oversight on police conduct and use of force.”
Kealoha’s testimony in the federal court case has been the subject of rampant speculation and allegations of corruption.
The chief was called to the witness stand to testify about a mailbox stolen from his house in 2013. The trial on the alleged theft comes in the midst of a messy family feud involving his wife, Katherine Kealoha, who is a criminal prosecutor for the city.
The Kealohas accused Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, of taking the mailbox, saying a grainy surveillance video shows him snatching it off its post in the dark of night.
But Puana and his 95-year-old mother, Florence Puana, had filed a lawsuit against Katherine Kealoha. The Puanas allege Kealoha stole more than $200,000 from them through shady financial dealings.
They said Katherine Kealoha then spent that money on everything from airfare and Elton John tickets to $25,000 on a celebration ceremony in 2009 at the Sheraton Waikiki after her husband was named chief.
A conviction in the federal mailbox case against Puana could go a long way in discrediting him in the lawsuit, according to his defense attorney, Alexander Silvert.
“The police commission is in a position to do something and the public is now watching.” — Hawaii Sen. Will Espero
But if the defense was able to prove that Puana was not the man seen stealing the mailbox — and the possible victim of a conspiracy — then it could hurt Katherine Kealoha’s chances in the lawsuit.
Silvert said she might even face more severe sanctions from the Hawaii Office of Disciplinary Counsel as well as a criminal investigation.
Silvert said he believes Kealoha was trying to protect his wife by intentionally sabotaging the trial by telling jurors that Puana had previously been arrested and convicted for breaking into a neighbors house.
Silvert said the chief should have known that he could not disclose that sort of information to jurors, and called for an investigation into whether it was deliberate.
Kealoha declined to comment for this article.