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FBI investigators are expected to meet Wednesday with the federal public defender who has been insisting he has evidence of corruption in the Honolulu Police Department.
It’s not the first time the FBI has investigated HPD. But it’s the first time its generally well-regarded chief, Louis Kealoha, has been at the center of any concerns.
Whatever happens, the problems are as serious as any the chief has faced in his 32-year career.
He was widely celebrated in 2009 as a hero of the rank and file, described as “Mr. Joe Aloha” by the head of the police union.
Honolulu Police Commission members said Kealoha had “exceeded expectations” when they unanimously reappointed him as chief last February, nearly nine months before his first term expired.
But the glow of those days is fading. Now the Honolulu Police Department is under intense pressure as a result of several high profile slip-ups, including one in which an officer was caught on video kicking a man in the face and throwing a stool at him in a Chinatown game room.
The federal public defender has made no secret of the fact that he thinks Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a high-ranking city prosecutor, were involved in framing his client for stealing Kealoha’s mailbox in June 2013, and that the Honolulu Police Department manufactured and falsified evidence to support an arrest.
State lawmakers have taken notice, meeting with Kealoha after an officer was accused of domestic violence, holding special hearings, and promising legislation aimed at beefing up oversight of the police department, among other things.
They’ve called on the police commission to take action. But commission members and others have thrown their support behind Kealoha, dismissing much of the criticism as simply a family spat that’s played out publicly.
Even Kealoha is defiant. He would not speak with Civil Beat for this story, but has said publicly that he’s done nothing wrong, particularly as it relates to his missing mailbox.
“From the beginning of this case, I always said that this was a personal matter,” Kealoha told reporters after a Jan. 7 Honolulu Police Commission meeting. “I do not know of anyone that doesn’t have personal challenges in their lives, but I can tell you that I’m no different. I’m actually the victim of a crime of my family.”
Kealoha has been mired in controversy before, starting with his selection as chief in November 2009. He was a captain in HPD’s Juvenile Services Division when he was named a finalist alongside several higher-ranking officers, including then-Acting Chief Paul Putzulu.
The selection process was heavily criticized after the police commission expanded the initial field of four finalists, including Kealoha, to six. The additional finalists were then-assistant chiefs Debora Tandal and Delbert Tatsuyama.
Two members of the chief selection committee resigned after that announcement was made. A police union representative speculated publicly that politics were being played so that then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann could put a woman in the chief’s position.
The two selection committee members who quit were William “Buzz” Hong, a retired police officer and current member of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, and Ron Taketa, the current head of the Hawaii Carpenters Union and now the chair of the police commission.
The commission unanimously selected Kealoha after a half-hour of deliberation. Craig Watase, who was on the commission at the time, said much of what the media was reporting was overblown and that there was no pressure to select any of the finalists.
“Everybody had this conspiracy theory, it was hilarious,” Watase told Civil Beat. “When you’re on the inside and you actually know what’s going on behind the closed doors and you hear the talk that’s going on outside it’s almost too much.”
Kealoha was a popular choice. Always well liked by the rank and file of HPD, he had received more than 100 letters of support from current and retired officers.
At his swearing-in ceremony in November 2009, several hundred police officers attended the event and Kealoha was draped with enough lei to cover the gold stars on the shoulders of his uniform.
It was a strong showing of support for the new chief and also highlighted the friction between Kealoha’s predecessor, Boisse Correa, and the department’s nearly 2,000 sworn officers.
Correa had reduced crime rates and increased staffing. But he alienated himself from the officers and their union when he did away with three-day-a-week schedules. Officers worked three 12-hour days.
While Correa argued that a five-day schedule was better for public safety and community engagement, the officers said it hindered their ability to work special duty jobs — extra assignments that pay $36 to $51 an hour for tasks such as directing traffic at construction sites or providing transportation escort services.
Kealoha did not implement a return to three-day work weeks, but HPD officers currently have a modified shift in which they work four nine-hour days each week with a fifth eight-hour day every two weeks.
The chief’s education made him an attractive hire, according to Christine Camp, president and CEO of Avalon Development Co. She was the head of the police commission in 2009 when Kealoha was selected as Correa’s replacement.
Kealoha holds a master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Chaminade University and a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California.
Camp said Kealoha had ingratiated himself with the rank in file in ways that officers closer to the administration could not, which gave him an advantage for boosting morale.
For instance, she said, Kealoha and his wife used to hold classes for younger officers to help them understand the department better by preparing them for their sergeants’ exams. In essence, he was the “chief of the everyday police officer,” Camp said.
“While he was working everybody was volunteering to help him,” Camp said. “That showed he had a lot of strength on his side, so when you come into an organization you’ve already won half the battle.”
Kealoha’s ties to Hawaii’s politically powerful police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, are well-documented. SHOPO supported his bid to be chief. Within days of being sworn in, he went to a union membership meeting with two of his deputies and was greeted with a standing ovation from about 100 officers.
SHOPO President Tenari Maafala noted then it was the first time a Honolulu police chief and his deputies had addressed the union during a membership meeting. Maafala told those in attendance that he expected Kealoha would be a better leader for the department by a “hundredfold.”
Maafala told the Honolulu Advertiser in November 2009 after the chief’s inauguration that a top selling point was Kealoha’s personality and his connection to the officers working the streets.
“He’s genuine, and he recognizes the human side,” Maafala said. “That’s just how he is. If you go down to the police station, he’s ‘Mr. Joe Aloha.’ It matches his name. He’s ‘Joe Kealoha.’ ”
Last month, Maafala gave an impassioned speech in support of the beleaguered chief before the police commission, saying that Kealoha had been unfairly lambasted in the press based on little more than perception.
Maafala did not respond to an interview request for this story.
The police commission was not blind to the obvious ties between Kealoha and SHOPO when it hired him. Watase said commissioners discussed the union connection.
Those closed-door discussions, Watase said, mainly revolved around what the public would think if the commission hired the union’s preferred guy. Ultimately, the commissioners decided it wasn’t enough of a concern to choose someone else.
“No matter who we picked I don’t think we could have gone wrong,” Watase said. “I certainly don’t think we went wrong with Louis Kealoha.”
Kealoha consistently receives high marks from the commission, which has the authority to hire and fire the chief. If there’s ever been any criticism it has come in closed executive session, which is where the majority of the commission’s meetings take place.
Some areas where the chief has focused his attention over the past five years include community-based policing, crime mapping and traffic safety. A major success for his department was the handling of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2011 that, despite protests, was a relatively peaceful affair that officials said did not result in any arrests.
“I consider the Honolulu Police Department one of the best police departments in the nation,” former Maui police chief Gary Yabuta told Civil Beat. “I believe Louis Kealoha is highly intellectual. He is science driven. What he has done is to promote a philosophy of Hawaiian values that compliment his primary responsibility to protect and defend our U.S. Constitution.”
And while Kealoha came into the department during a fiscal crisis and amid unrest in the ranks, Yabuta said Honolulu’s police chief has put together a team of administrators that have built an effective, trustworthy department.
Still, there were problems. Questions have been raised about whether HPD takes sex trafficking seriously. Several officers have also been prosecuted for serious crimes, including sexual assault, falsifying DUI arrest reports and extortion.
The problems mounted last year. In September, Sgt. Darren Cachola was caught on surveillance video repeatedly striking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant. Although officers responded to the scene, no arrests were made or reports filed.
One month later, Officer Vincent Morre was caught on video assaulting a man in a Chinatown game room as two other officers — one a reservist — stood by and watched. The FBI has since launched a civil rights investigation.
The department’s use of force has also been called into question. Researchers at the University of Hawaii found that from June 2010 to August 2014, Honolulu police officers shot and killed 11 people. According to their research, that put Honolulu’s per capita rate for fatal police shootings at nearly four times the national average.
Taxpayers have paid out record amounts in settlements involving police actions, including a $1.4 million settlement for the death of Aaron Torres, who officers killed in 2012 while trying to restrain him.
Questions surrounding the case of the chief’s stolen mailbox have added to the chorus of problems.
Kealoha’s mailbox was reported stolen in June 2013, by someone the chief believes holds a grudge against his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a city prosecutor who tackles high-level crime in Honolulu.
The man the Kealohas accused of the theft is Gerard Puana, his wife’s estranged uncle, who is suing her for more $200,000 he says she stole from him and his 95-year-old mother. But Chief Kealoha ruined any chance he had of seeing Puana behind bars due to inappropriate testimony he gave about Puana’s criminal past.
That was enough to get the case dismissed, and it also cast a shadow of doubt over the chief, his wife and how the police department investigated the case.
Puana’s attorney, First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert, asserts that his client was framed and that HPD’s investigation of the alleged theft was fraught with irregularities, including the falsification of records and disappearance of evidence.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office asked for the case to be dismissed only after meeting with Silvert to discuss evidence that he says indicates a frame-up. Prosecutors then referred the matter to the FBI for further investigation. Silvert is scheduled to meet with FBI officials Wednesday to discuss the case and share evidence that was not released during trial.
“People seem to think the mistrial is why the FBI is involved and that’s not true,” Silvert said. “The mistrial is a mistrial. That’s not why the FBI is interested. What we’re talking to the FBI about is the manufactured and falsified evidence separate and apart from the mistrial.”
During last month’s trial, Silvert raised questions about the actions of Niall Silva, the officer who initially recovered the surveillance video from the Kealohas’ residence. Among the questions were why Silva, who is now retired, went to the house to review the video before Katherine Kealoha even reported a crime had occurred.
Silvert also pressed Silva on evidentiary paperwork that he altered in violation of HPD protocol, which Silvert equated to falsifying a police report.
Silva’s testimony revealed that HPD might not have been giving Silvert all the evidence he had asked for under subpoena. Specifically, Silvert said after the trial that Silva testified about a hard drive that the department told him didn’t exist. Silvert had concerns about whether the hard drive could be found or if had been destroyed.
The biggest remaining questions are what exactly was the chief’s involvement, and did he misappropriate HPD resources.
In a September interview with Civil Beat, Kealoha defended his actions, as well as those of his wife, who had been on unpaid personal leave from the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
While he wouldn’t go into specifics, Kealoha did address the possible fallout that could come from the case.
“I totally understand the implications and what can happen, but I’m gonna stand up to that,” Kealoha said. “What this is all about is what we believe in. And we believe we didn’t do anything wrong.”