By any objective standard, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha has racked up a troubling record: He’s under FBI investigation. He was rebuked by the mayor recently for trying to promote an officer with a record of domestic violence. Under his watch, the city has paid out millions to settle cases in which out-of-control officers have used excessive force, mistreated and endangered colleagues by racist, sexist actions, and otherwise behaved badly.
One might think that, in his annual job review, Kealoha should have feared getting a well-deserved pink slip. One would be wrong.
Just as it did last year, when Kealoha was coming off a very rough 2014, the Honolulu Police Commission last week praised the chief in his annual performance evaluation as “exceeding expectations.”
What are their expectations? Keep breathing?
Civil Beat previously has called for Chief Kealoha to be sacked. It’s pretty obvious we need a wholesale house-cleaning at the police commission, too.
A look at the actual performance review shows clearly how determined commissioners are to see no evil and speak no evil.
The evaluation “goals” by which they judge Kealoha use standards so low as to all but guarantee high marks just for showing up to work each day and tending to the bare basics.
Does he provide a budget to the commission and meet that budget? Does he maintain a “positive relationship” with other agencies (apart from, apparently, the FBI)? Does he regularly attend commission meetings? Does he give the commission a copy of his annual disciplinary report? Does he take courses that complement his police chief responsibilities? Does he provide the public with efficient access to police services?
Many of these actual goals and activities, and others, lend themselves to simple yes/no responses. Other expectations seems appropriate for an entry-level police cadet, not the chief of the nation’s 20th largest police department.
Does he show good work habits regarding attendance, timeliness, appearance and business-like demeanor? Does he show professional ethics that include sincerity, loyalty, honesty, integrity, humor, respect and concern for others?
Yes? Why, that exceeds expectations! Gold star!
In a press release touting the evaluation, Commission Chair Ron Taketa said:
“The commissioners remain confident in Chief Kealoha’s ability to lead the Department as it continues to address the challenges of modern law enforcement, as well as the public’s evolving expectations of its police personnel.”
Hmm. Here’s what Taketa said after last year’s review:
“The commissioners remain confident in Chief Kealoha’s character and abilities as he continues to lead HPD in the challenging environment of modern law enforcement.”
It’s impossible to know if there was any more depth to the commission’s review. Like most other substantial commission business, it was conducted in private or “executive session,” and the public was given little opportunity to provide input.
For insight as to what the tenor of the evaluation conversation may have been, though, look no further than the the commission’s press release. It singled out unfair media coverage as the culprit regarding apparently warped public perception of Kealoha.
“Despite concerns to the contrary expressed through the media during 2015,” says the release, “the commission believes that Chief Kealoha was successful in effectively managing the HPD and ensuring that public safety was maintained at all times.”
Except for the incidents leading to lawsuits, allegations of police brutality and so on.
That a performance evaluation of Kealoha would be so lacking in seriousness and in critical reflection is frankly shocking, given the year the chief just endured.
Throughout the report, commissioners only assigned Kealoha numerical grades on a five-point scale, withholding any explanatory comments whatsoever.
Under the Management area, for instance, Kealoha simply earns a 4.3; under Community Relations, a 3.8. And so on. Why? Who knows.
Where is the commission’s recognition of such serious matters as:
— Only six months ago, Kealoha and his department brushed aside the commission’s own findings regarding a group of eight heavily armed officers who attacked and violently beat two hikers, sending one to the hospital with serious injuries. The commission found that two officers used excessive force and that all eight engaged in “conduct unbecoming an officer.” But, incredibly, none were disciplined. Beyond paying $167,500 out of taxpayer pockets to settle a lawsuit brought by the men, Kealoha’s department simply ignored the matter.
— Honolulu’s City Council, Wednesday, agreed to pay a jaw-dropping $4.7 million to settle a lawsuit by former officers, based on a history of racial and gender discrimination within the department. That is, by far, the highest settlement in a suit against the department. And some of the worst allegations in the matter point to conduct that happened under Kealoha’s watch. Kealoha is named in the suit along with more than a dozen current and former staff members.
Earlier this year, the City Council agreed to pay up to $975,000 in legal fees in the case. One of the most outrageous allegations concerns a 2010 incident in which one of Kealoha’s officers was allowed to go into a bar without proper backup, though other officers knew a dangerous and potentially armed felon would be there. Officer Cassandra Huihui was injured in that incident and is now permanently disabled.
— Police face a lawsuit, alleging inappropriate use of force, from the family of Sheldon Haleck, who died last year after police used a stun gun on him in downtown Honolulu. The attorney representing his family said he plans to seek $6 million to compensate the Halecks for Sheldon’s death.
— Kealoha himself continues to be under investigation by Special Prosecutor Michael Wheat of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego and the FBI. At the core of the investigation is a mailbox stolen from Kealoha’s home in 2013, and allegations that he and his wife tried to frame Kealoha’s uncle for the crime. Despite the matter being widely reported, the commission continues to question whether the investigation is even real, saying neither the FBI nor the special prosecutor has shared information on the investigation with them.
It’s apparently real enough, though, that a concerned Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell met with Kealoha last December, saying afterward in a media interview he had told the chief “you need to get a handle on this. You need to get out in front of this.”
State Sen. Will Espero, a frequent police department critic, recently said commissioners need to “get their heads out of the sand.”
— Kealoha’s recent attempt to promote to assistant chief an officer with a history of domestic violence and restraining orders played out while his performance review was in process.
For those who have already forgotten, with Kealoha and the department facing a barrage of criticism from elected officials and the community, Maj. Ryan Borges opted not to accept the promotion, getting the chief off the hook for an extraordinarily bad judgment call.
How is all this going down with the public? In a Civil Beat poll earlier this year, 46 percent of respondents said local police departments need greater oversight, while only 35 percent described themselves as satisfied with the way cops are currently policed.
The police commission is doing neither the police nor the public any good with its lackadaisical oversight of the department and its kid gloves approach to the police chief, who it is responsible for hiring, firing and overseeing.
From its apparent lack of real interest in Kealoha’s FBI investigation to its recent silence on serious matters in the department, let’s be real: The commission is providing no real oversight for HPD or its chief.
That job appears to be falling to Mayor Caldwell, who has publicly stepped in twice on recent matters, first encouraging Kealoha to get a hold on the FBI investigation, as noted above, and secondly in the matter of the officer with a history of domestic violence being proposed for promotion to assistant chief.
Caldwell, however, has no legal authority over the police chief. But he does have power over the police commission. He appoints all seven members.
Given the commission’s refusal to live up to its responsibilities, Caldwell should demand that they do so. And he should start finding better replacements for the seven members of the board as their staggered five-year terms expire.
Three of the commissioners are up for reappointment now. Replacing them would be a good place to start.
While Caldwell’s recent strategy of intervening when matters reach a boiling point has helped slightly — Borges declined his promotion one day after Caldwell expressed his concerns to Kealoha —it’s not a long-term solution to what ails HPD.
Caldwell should do everything in his power to put the commission and the police department on a path toward change.
If he doesn’t, he’ll bear responsibility for a dysfunctional department and top cop under seige as he faces a reelection campaign this fall. And it’s unlikely, in that event, that voters will feel his oversight of Oahu’s law enforcement responsibilities “exceeds expectations.”