Oahu voters will have the chance to toughen up the Honolulu Police Commission in light of numerous scandals gripping the Police Department, including a federal investigation of Chief Louis Kealoha.
On Wednesday, the Honolulu Charter Commission adopted a proposal that, if approved by voters Nov. 8, would make it easier for the Police Commission to suspend or fire the chief for a wide range of offenses.
Those would include disregarding public safety or violating professional responsibility through criminal conduct or substance abuse.
Currently, the commission does not have the authority to suspend a police chief. There’s also a high burden of proof that must be met before a chief can be fired that largely hinges on proving “gross or continuous maladministration.”
The proposal would also give the Police Commission subpoena powers and the ability to recommend punishment or corrective actions for officers accused of misconduct. If the chief decided to ignore the commission’s recommendations, he would be required to provide a written explanation.
At least one person at Wednesday’s Charter Commission meeting said the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
“When the public is upset with the police chief they have no place to go. Who does the public deal with when they need to have some accountability?” — Charter Commission member and former Gov. John Waihee
Aaron Hunger is a former police officer and doctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who specializes in criminal justice and police oversight. He testified at the meeting about the need for stricter oversight, and said afterward that the proposal that was approved is a good start, but that it still falls short.
“This is simply looking at what can we do to hold the police manager accountable,” Hunger told Civil Beat. “This is simply one aspect of the overall fix that needs to happen if we’re going to keep up with where the nation is going in terms of how we do business in these departments.”
Hunger pointed to several pieces of legislation that have been introduced at the Legislature over the years that would have created a statewide police standards and training board to oversee officer conduct. Such an institution, he said, could provide much-needed oversight of police officers, especially those accused of misconduct.
He said he also would have liked to see the Charter Commission recommend a measure that, if approved by voters, would have allowed the mayor to hire or fire the police chief.
This was a point of much debate Wednesday, and has been a topic of discussion for at least two years. The debate has intensified now that Kealoha and his prosecutor wife, Katherine Kealoha, are the subjects of a federal investigation of possible abuse of power.
The Police Commission has ignored numerous media reports that have confirmed that grand jury proceedings are underway, and recently gave Kealoha high marks in his annual performance review, finding that he has been “exceeding expectations.”
Kealoha’s positive evaluation came despite other high-profile scandals within his department, including his recent attempt to promote an officer with a history of domestic violence to assistant chief.
State Sen. Will Espero, who has been an outspoken critic of Kealoha and his department, has said he has lost faith in the Police Commission to oversee the chief and his department, and has been pushing for more accountability both at the Legislature and at the Charter Commission.
On Wednesday, Espero cited examples of officers getting arrested or convicted of criminal acts, including the recent case of Landon Rudolfo, who was found guilty in federal court this week of buying a stolen vehicle from another officer. At the time of the verdict, Rudolfo was on unpaid leave with from the Honolulu Police Department.
“Over the last three or four years there’s just been a plethora of criminal cases where the police have been found guilty, and it was headline news last night and today,” Espero said. “The feeling from the general public is that the oversight is lacking or weak primarily because of the charter. You have the opportunity to change that.”
A number of Charter Commission members were interested in giving the mayor the authority to hire and fire a police chief, in particular former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee. He said such a system would give citizens an outlet to voice their displeasure with how the Police Department is being run at the ballot box.
That’s not the case today since police commissioners are insulated from the political process. Each commissioner is appointed by the mayor to a five-year term that is subject to approval by the Honolulu City Council. Those terms are staggered so as to make sure that no single mayor can appoint all the commissioners at a given time.
“When the public is upset with the police chief they have no place to go,” Waihee said to Espero. “Who does the public deal with when they need to have some accountability?”
Charter Commission members considered a proposal that would have given the mayor hiring and firing authority, but ultimately voted it down. It was the first time they have voted on a proposal in which there was not a unanimous decision, according to Charter Commission Chairman David Rae.
Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya attended Wednesday’s meeting, saying the mayor’s office supported the Charter Commission’s recommendation. Amemiya told the commission he did not want to comment on whether Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell would support a measure that would give him the authority to hire and fire the police chief.
The Charter Commission also received a report Wednesday on several proposals related to the Honolulu Ethics Commission, including one that would let the Honolulu Salary Commission set the pay for the executive director and staff attorneys.
Read the Charter Commission proposal on the Police Commission here: