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Kevin Mulligan wants to make it easier to fire the Honolulu police chief — or any officer, for that matter — who might be tarnishing the reputation of the department with bad behavior and inappropriate conduct.
Mulligan is a retired union agent for the Hawaii Government Employees Association, and a member of the 12-person Honolulu Charter Commission, which is tasked with vetting proposed amendments to the city constitution.
Because the Charter Commission only reevaluates the city constitution every 10 years, Mulligan says he doesn’t want to waste the opportunity. That’s why he believes it’s important to talk publicly about sharpening the teeth of the Honolulu Police Commission, which is supposed to provide oversight of officers’ conduct.
Recent events, including the commission’s refusal to acknowledge a current FBI investigation into Police Chief Louis Kealoha, have some local and state leaders questioning the agency’s effectiveness. A special federal prosecutor is investigating allegations that Kealoha and his wife Katherine, a city prosecutor, framed her uncle for stealing their mailbox.
“What’s going on now is certainly a concern and you can’t ignore that,” Mulligan said. “But we’re trying to look to the future, too, in terms of how can we ensure that there’s real accountability and oversight over the police department.”
“We have quite a bit of influence over the chief, and it is through the chief that we make our feelings known.” — Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa
Mulligan has submitted several proposals to the Charter Commission, including one that would lower the threshold for firing a police chief and another to create a completely new oversight agency to keep tabs on the department’s internal disciplinary process.
Today the only entity that can hire or fire the chief is the Honolulu Police Commission. Under the city charter the chief, who serves a five-year term, can be removed for cause, such as a direct violation of city policy. The police chief also can be terminated for “gross or continuous maladministration,” so long he or she is given written notice and a “reasonable period” to correct problems. But Mulligan says that standard is too low.
“The department is too important in our community to wait until a problem of that severity materializes,” Mulligan wrote in his proposal. “For example, if there is a pattern of misconduct by officers which is not addressed, that should be sufficient cause for the Police Commission to remove the police chief.”
The proposal also would allow the commission to put the police chief on leave during an ongoing investigation.
For instance, the Honolulu City Council recently settled, for $167,500, a lawsuit by two men who said they were slammed into the ground by police officers after being mistaken for burglary suspects. One of the men suffered broken bones to his face.
While the Honolulu Police Commission found that the officers used excessive force and were guilty of “conduct unbecoming,” the department disagreed. Neither of the officers was disciplined for the incident, because the current rules don’t give the commission any power to discipline officers. The department can simply ignore commission findings with which it disagrees.
Mulligan proposed creating an Office of Inspector General, attached to the Police Commission, that would have the ability to audit, investigate and oversee the police department’s handling of citizen complaints of misconduct.
Today any complaints lodged with the commission must be signed and notarized, which Ikeda said “can be intimidating and result in injured parties not filing complaints.”
Such an office would make it harder for the department to ignore recommendations by the Police Commission, he said, and would add to the checks and balances to address issues such as the excessive use of force by officers.
Mulligan said he also wants to see terms limits for the seven police commissioners. Chairman Ron Taketa, for example, has served multiple five-year terms over decades.
“You want to have oversight, but you don’t want people necessarily serving for long periods of time,” Mulligan said. “If people are on there for a long period of time it might — and I emphasize might — limit their ability to make tough decisions.”
Mulligan is not alone in calling for Police Commission reform.
Charter Commission member Donna Ikeda, a former state lawmaker, wants to give citizens the right to file anonymous complaints with the Police Commission.
Today, any complaints lodged with the commission must be signed and notarized, which Ikeda said “can be intimidating and result in injured parties not filing complaints.”
State Sen. Will Espero, who has long been a champion of improved police accountability, also is calling for action.
He wants to give the mayor the authority to fire a police chief, so long as the move gains majority support from the commission. The senator also would like to amend the city charter to give broad authority to the police commission to impose discipline on officers rather than leaving it solely to the department.
All of these recommendations face a long road to approval, however. The deadline for proposed amendments is Oct. 31. Then a long public vetting process begins that will continue through next summer before any amendments can be put to voters in November 2016.
Top officials from the department and the Police Commission also will have the chance to include their views on any proposed amendments to the city charter.
Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. But, during an Oct. 1 Charter Commission meeting, he defended the commission’s ability to provide oversight of the police department and its chief.
“The department does not ignore the commission and the commission is not powerless,” Taketa said, referring to the recent settlement with the hikers. “We have quite a bit of influence over the chief, and it is through the chief that we make our feelings known.”
He said that it’s rare that the department disagrees with a commission recommendation. Taketa added that the current disciplinary process is not broken, and that any changes would likely require modifications to state law and collective bargaining agreements.
“The department is equipped to do this, and in my opinion they do a very good job in disciplining officers,” he said. “We see the complete case load from (internal affairs) as well as the Police Commission, and I haven’t detected any laxity in the kind of discipline that’s been imposed.”