Honolulu taxpayers are about to be on the hook for the largest financial settlement in recent history regarding local police misconduct to close a racial and sexual discrimination case against the Honolulu Police Department.
In the past decade, the city has paid out claims in nearly 100 cases involving the police department, including a $1.4 million settlement in 2014.
But the proposed $4.7 million settlement in this case — on top of nearly $1 million in legal fees that have already been approved — has lawmakers and criminal justice experts urging Mayor Kirk Caldwell and other city officials to step in and do something about the Honolulu Police Department.
In the past couple of years Honolulu police officers have come under increasing scrutiny for highly publicized incidents, including domestic violence and other misconduct within the department’s ranks.
HPD Chief Louis Kealoha himself is the subject of an FBI investigation into possible corruption and wrongdoing.
Despite that and repeated incidents of misconduct within the department, the Honolulu Police Commission earlier this month announced its annual performance review of the chief and rated him as “exceeding expectations.”
The police commission — not the mayor — has authority over the police chief, including hiring and firing. A proposal for police reform being considered by the Honolulu Charter Commission would give the mayor more involvement.
The 2010 lawsuit alleged that police supervisors put three officers’ lives in danger by refusing to provide backup cover during evening shifts. Two of the plaintiffs — Sgt. Shermon Dowkin, who is African-American, and former officer Federico Delgadillo Jr., who is Mexican-American — say they endured racial epithets and life-threatening, unfair treatment for years while supervisors ignored their complaints.
A third plaintiff — former officer Cassandra Bennett-Bagorio Huihui, a white woman — said she suffered retaliation by supervisors and endured sexist and racist comments after sticking up for Dowkin and Delgadillo. She was ultimately injured while on duty after defendant Sgt. Ralston Tanaka permitted her to enter a bar where a suspect was located without backup cover. She is permanently disabled.
A second lawsuit filed three years ago contended that the police department and city attorneys hid evidence and conspired to clear the defendants despite proof that they had in fact made racially derogatory remarks and denied the plaintiffs backup cover.
State Sen. Will Espero called the allegations “disgusting and offending” and said the proposed settlement’s high price tag should motivate city officials to reform the department.
“This settlement amount is certainly a reason for the mayor and the City and County and all residents to pay more attention to what’s happening within our police department,” Espero said. “It shows the need for better management, better oversight and better leadership.”
He’s not alone. Advocates for police reform question why Caldwell has been relatively quiet on the issue, which was not something that came up during his recent State of the City address.
“This is a very big police department and it clearly needs his attention at least as much as the roads,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of Hawaii. “This (proposed settlement) is a lot of money and this is a city that can ill-afford these kinds of payouts.”
It’s unclear whether the city is doing anything to prevent similar lawsuits from occurring in the future.
Despite the breadth of the allegations, the Honolulu Police Department hasn’t disciplined anyone, a spokeswoman for the agency said Friday.
The lawsuits named more than a dozen current and former staff members as defendants, including Kealoha.
Caldwell said in a statement Friday that there’s no place in the city for gender or racial discrimination, and retaliation for speaking up won’t be tolerated.
“We need our city officials to step up to the plate and look at what’s going on and demand changes.” — Sen. Will Espero
Deputy Chief Marie McCauley echoed that position, and said in an emailed statement that the allegations don’t reflect the values of the police department.
But public information officers for the mayor and the police department ignored questions regarding whether officials are pursuing any institutional changes to ensure the allegations of racism and retaliation don’t resurface.
Espero has been leading the charge for police reform at the Legislature. The Senate passed a bill he authored last week establishing a statewide police standards and training board. Hawaii is the only state without one.
But Espero said he hopes city leaders like Caldwell take responsibility for improving the police department instead of relying on the Legislature to act.
“We need our city officials to step up to the plate and look at what’s going on and demand changes,” he said. “People need to be held accountable and if necessary tried and put in jail or charged accordingly.”
University of Hawaii law professor Kenneth Lawson said that the HPD case is particularly troubling because federal civil rights complaints require plaintiffs to establish that the department systematically allowed discrimination to occur.
“There’s an actual policy of this type of institutional racism in order for it to get to this point,” he said.
According to the plaintiffs’ lawsuits, defendant Lt. Dan Kwon admitted to making racially disparaging remarks in a 2009 internal investigation, and the police administrative review board recommended that he be suspended.
The police department’s internal investigation also found that Kwon and defendant Lt. Wayne Fernandez ordered police officers not to provide backup cover to Dowkin and Delgadillo on nighttime traffic stops, the complaint said.
Yet the department absolved Kwon and Fernandez of wrongdoing in 2011, and didn’t share evidence of previous findings with plaintiffs until 2012, the lawsuit alleged.
The agency also delayed its investigation of the plaintiffs’ initial 2008 human resources complaint for more than three years despite an internal policy that investigations be completed within five days, the lawsuit said.
Espero said he’s stunned that no one has been disciplined, and yet taxpayers may be on the hook for millions.
“A police officer was injured and disabled because of alleged retaliation by other police officers,” he said. “That is unconscionable and I want to see some action done on this. This whole incident is just disturbing.”
Chesney-Lind noted the irony that Kealoha recently received a positive review from the Honolulu Police Commission.
“Certainly we need a real oversight body and the Honolulu Police Commission is clearly not that,” said Chesney-Lind, contending that there is a “crisis in leadership.”
Commission chairman Ronald Taketa did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
“You don’t settle for over $4.5 million unless there’s pretty powerful evidence that there was a problem,” Chesney-Lind said.
Espero is not surprised the case may be settled.
“What happened is so terrible that the police or the City and County would not want this on the nightly news via a trial and have their dirty laundry out for everybody to see,” he said.
The proposed settlement is significantly more expensive than previous legal cases involving the Honolulu Police Department.
From Jan. 1, 2003, to May 1, 2014, the city settled nearly 100 cases regarding police for a total of $5.7 million. A $1.4 million settlement in 2014 involving the death of Aaron Torres was the largest payout at the time.
The proposed settlement of $4.7 million may be the latest — and most expensive — but won’t be the last.
Lawson believes that if nothing changes within the department, taxpayers will be faced with increasingly higher settlements.
“If it’s $4.7 million now and someone else falls victim (to discrimination), then it’s going to be even bigger,” he said.
The city is also in the midst of defending the police department from a lawsuit brought by the family of Sheldon Haleck, who died last year after police used a stun gun on him in downtown Honolulu. The city medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, although that term is a technical finding and does not mean Haleck was murdered, only that someone else caused his death.
Deputy Chief Marie McCauley says the allegations of racial discrimination don’t reflect the values of the police department.
Attorney Eric Seitz, who represents Haleck’s family, said a judge recently urged attorneys to consider settlement negotiations.
Seitz plans to seek $6 million to compensate Haleck’s family for his death. That’s about how much the city of Baltimore agreed to pay the family of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody, and New York City approved for the family of Eric Garner, who was killed by police on Staten Island.
On Wednesday, it will be a year since Haleck died, but Seitz said he hasn’t received any evidence that the police officers involved have been investigated or disciplined.
“Frankly the city is just going on as if nothing happened,” Seitz said. “That’s somewhat devastating to his family who are celebrating a memorial for him next weekend.”
Seitz said while financial compensation is important, the lack of institutional change is scary.
“The public seems to accept that the police are entitled to use force inappropriately and they’re not going to held accountable,” he said. “And until that changes people are going to be in danger.”