Four state lawmakers are calling on the Honolulu Police Commission to appoint someone to help Police Chief Louis Kealoha run his department in light of recent events involving his mailbox, a mistrial, his prosecutor wife and her estranged uncle.
On Monday, state Sens. Will Espero, Roz Baker, Breene Harimoto and Russell Ruderman sent a two-page letter to Honolulu Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa saying they are worried that Kealoha’s involvement in a bitter family dispute that spilled over into the courts has clouded his judgment.
To ensure the police department is being run effectively, the senators want the commission to appoint one or two “co-chiefs” to assist in running the day-to-day operations of the department.
“As the Honolulu police chief, Chief Kealoha has great responsibilities and authority overseeing his City agency,” the senators wrote. “One can easily also conclude that there is a certain amount of stress, anxiety, and pressure on the chief as these cases move forward in the courts.”
The chief’s mailbox was reported stolen June 21, 2013. His wife, city prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, accused her uncle, Gerard Puana, of the crime. Puana was then arrested by a special unit of HPD and charged with a federal crime of destroying a mailbox.
But Puana’s trial was derailed after the chief took the stand and and violated court rules by testifying about Puana’s prior criminal history, resulting in a mistrial.
Puana’s attorney, federal public defender Alexander Silvert, said he believes the chief caused the mistrial on purpose.
Silvert also said he believes the Kealohas were trying to frame his client for the mailbox theft to help Katherine Kealoha in a lawsuit filed against her by Puana and his 95-year-old grandmother. They claim Katherine Kealoha took more than $200,000 from them.
Silvert’s allegation that the Kealohas set his client up, as well as other allegations about officer misconduct in the mailbox theft case, have resulted in an FBI inquiry.
While the lawmakers expressed concern over these cases and the mistrial, they also pointed to statements Kealoha made in the media about vandalism at his house and his initial decision not to report the incidents to the police.
Taken together, the senators said that indicates “questionable decision-making” on Kealoha’s part.
While the commission can hire and fire the chief, it does not have much say in the day-to-day operations of HPD or its handling of serious misconduct.
Baker told Civil Beat this has been a concern to legislators ever since video surfaced of a sergeant punching his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.
Another officer who was caught on tape assaulting a man in Chinatown added to the worry. That incident is now under FBI investigation.
“There are some really good leaders in that department and some very fine officers,” Baker said. “But I was hoping that the Police Commission would step up to the plate and be more of an oversight body than they have been in the past.”
State lawmakers are now seeking ways to give county police commissions — which are county entities — more teeth. They are also looking at creating a separate statewide oversight agency for law enforcement.
Espero, who is spearheading many of these efforts, said he has already reached out to the Honolulu City Council to consider a charter amendment to give the commission more power.
The letter calling for the commission to hire someone to help out the chief, Espero said, was just a way to help restore public confidence in the department.
“The intent is to make certain that our police department is being run in the best way it can,” Espero said. “That will benefit the officers as well as the general public.”
Police commissioners discussed the letter during a closed door meeting Wednesday, and will draft a response to the senators.
After the meeting, Taketa told Civil Beat he would not discuss what would be in the response letter until after the senators have received it.
“I think it’s only fair that the senators receive that response from us rather than through the media,” he said.
Taketa also made clear that the senators were incorrect in their letter to say that the Police Commission’s 2014 evaluation of Kealoha was put on hold. He said the evaluation is still on schedule and should be finalized in February.
Taketa also reiterated his support for the chief, and the commission’s stance that it will not launch its own investigation into his actions until the FBI probe is completed.
“The family dispute is a personal matter and it has not affected his performance on the job,” Taketa said. “The department is running well.”
Kealoha also addressed the media after the Police Commission meeting, saying that senators’ concerns are part of a personal matter that do not affect his ability to lead the department.
You can read the full letter here: