Former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann appointed Helen Hamada to the city’s police commission in 2008 because, he told her, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
In the years since, Hamada has reviewed hundreds of citizen complaints against Honolulu police officers alleging everything from being rude during traffic stops to using excessive force while making an arrest.
Hamada also was one of the commissioners who in 2009 hired current Chief Louis Kealoha after his predecessor, Boisse Correa, got into several public spats with the rank and file over his tough approach to disciplining officers and scheduling their work hours.
She says that Kealoha was a welcome change for the department, and was popular among his peers. He also had an ambitious strategic plan to improve the department’s standing in the community with a mission based on integrity, fairness and respect.
But now, Hamada says, her confidence in Kealoha is waning.
Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who is a high-ranking deputy city prosecutor, are currently under federal investigation for alleged corruption and abuse of power stemming from a strange family dispute that involves the theft of their mailbox.
“If I could bury myself in a turtle shell and walk around with it on I certainly would, because I really can’t give an answer that would satisfy the public.” — Police Commission Member Helen Hamada
In the past few years, there have been numerous scandals involving Honolulu police officers, some of whom have been accused of heinous crimes, including sex assault, kidnapping and violence against women.
Hamada says people in the community are asking her what the police commission is doing to address the problem, especially as it relates to the chief. But she says commissioners can’t do much, because the city charter doesn’t give them the authority to suspend Kealoha or force him to step aside while the criminal probe is pending.
The FBI has refused to provide the commission with any information. And Hamada said it’s not fair to fire Kealoha based solely on the allegations that have been reported in the media.
“That part is frustrating because the public perception is that we’re not doing anything,” Hamada said. “If I could bury myself in a turtle shell and walk around with it on I certainly would, because I really can’t give an answer that would satisfy the public.”
Hamada is the first police commissioner to publicly express concerns about Kealoha and the effect it’s having on the credibility of the commission to perform its oversight duties. She said she feels the public’s trust eroding, and worries that it will soon undermine the entire department.
“Until more information comes out we just have to support him,” Hamada said. “What else can we say really?”
Hamada’s tone is quite different than what the commission has said through its chairman, Ron Taketa. As the commission’s spokesman, Taketa has been defensive about the commission’s response — or lack thereof — to the FBI’s investigation of Kealoha and his wife.
Taketa declined to be interviewed for this story; but he has said on several occasions that he believes the police commission is doing a good job providing civilian oversight of HPD. He often blames the press for creating a false impression with the public.
In fact, when the commission announced last month that Kealoha was “exceeding expectations” in his annual performance review, Taketa said commissioners were confident in the chief’s ability to lead the department.
The announcement even stated that Kealoha was successful in managing HPD and maintaining public safety “despite concerns to the contrary expressed through the media during 2015.”
But now Taketa and Hamada’s terms on the commission are up. They’re two of three commissioners who could be replaced by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. The other is Commissioner Max Sword, whose term expired at the end of 2015. Commissioners can remain on the board after their term ends, if a replacement hasn’t been appointed.
And while there’s a push to give the commission more authority through voter-approved charter amendments, some say the mayor could immediately rebuild public trust through new appointments to the commission.
The Honolulu Charter Commission wants to put a proposal on the November ballot that would make it easier for the police commission to fire or suspend the chief. If approved, the proposal also would give the commission subpoena powers, potentially strengthening investigations into officer misconduct.
“As you know, the mayor believes ensuring public safety is one of his greatest responsibilities as chief executive of the City and County of Honolulu, and he wants to be sure any new commission member shares this vision.” — Andrew Pereira, mayoral spokesman
But the charter commission didn’t address the makeup of the police commission itself, despite concerns that the current rules don’t set solid qualifications to serve and that some commissioners — in particular Taketa — have remained members of the oversight entity for many years.
Caldwell has the opportunity to shake up the commission if he chooses. City records show that Taketa’s and Sword’s terms expired at the end of 2015, and that Hamada’s expired in 2014. They are now serving until Caldwell makes a decision to reappoint them or find new candidates.
The mayor was unavailable for comment last week as he was out of the country on a family vacation; but his spokesman, Andrew Pereira, said in an emailed statement that Caldwell is well aware of the need to fill the positions and is currently weighing his options.
“It’s a matter of the mayor finding candidates with the qualities and credentials to be good stewards of the Honolulu Police Department, while also possessing a good understanding of the trust that must exist between the public and HPD,” Pereira said.
“As you know, the mayor believes ensuring public safety is one of his greatest responsibilities as chief executive of the City and County of Honolulu, and he wants to be sure any new commission member shares this vision.”
Pereira added that there is no specific timeline for when Caldwell will announce his appointments to the Police Commission. Whoever he picks still must be vetted and approved by the Honolulu City Council, which has a history of unanimously signing off on mayoral selections.
Caldwell already reappointed Commissioner Marc Tilker to another five-year term in 2013. If the mayor is reelected, he will have the chance to replace the remaining three commissioners, Cha Thompson, Eddie Flores Jr. and Luella Costales, before leaving office.
Former police Chief Boisse Correa says Caldwell’s decision can’t come soon enough. Correa believes the entire commission should be replaced.
“The police commission is doing a bum job,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re doing. In my view the police commission is the only oversight for the city of the police chief, and that oversight is a very important responsibility.”
Correa said the commission and its members deserve all the criticism that has come their way from citizens and lawmakers, such as Senate Vice President Will Espero, who has been a vocal advocate for police reform. The commissioners could take a heavier-handed approach with Kealoha, Correa said, but they simply refuse to do so.
The Honolulu Police Commission is supposed to be a civilian watchdog of the police department. It is made up of seven volunteer community members appointed by the mayor.
Their duty is to investigate citizen complaints of officer misconduct and make sure the police chief is managing the department in a professional and efficient manner.
While they can’t impose discipline on individual officers, they can fire the police chief for what is defined in the city charter as “gross maladministration.”
Other duties include overseeing the department’s budget and reviewing its standards and procedures. The commission also is charged with approving officers’ requests for legal counsel.
Even if they feel like they can’t fire or discipline the chief due to limitations in the city charter — a constant refrain from the commission — Correa said they could use their bully pulpit and take other administrative measures to pressure Kealoha to shape up.
“The Police Commission has all the authority it needs to do its job,” Correa said. “You can’t blame the law. They have the authority and the clout to do whatever they need to do to resolve situations involving the chief. But if they don’t take action, or they become politically bogged down, then you have the situation you have today.”
Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz agrees. Seitz has filed dozens of lawsuits against the police department over the years, and has notched numerous victories for victims of police abuse. He’s now seeking $6 million from the city for the death of Sheldon Haleck, who was killed by police in March 2015.
Seitz calls the Honolulu Police Commission a “public farce,” and says it should be abolished altogether. Most of the commission’s proceedings take place behind closed doors, he said, which makes it impossible for the public to understand why it makes decisions or whether those decisions are fair.
As a result, Seitz says, the commission has evolved into a rubber stamp for the department, and does little to hold officers accountable to the public. He even tells his clients to avoid taking cases to the commission because it will only lead to frustration and disappointment.
“I consider the police commission to be a worthless exercise,” Seitz said. “I have won and settled cases in which they have found no actionable misconduct.”
The fact that the seven members of the commission are mayoral appointees further distances them from the citizens they’re supposed to represent, he said. They’re mostly well-connected business owners and labor leaders, several of whom have served on other government commissions and boards in the past.
For instance, Taketa is the head of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, which is one of the largest labor groups in the state. It’s also highly political. The union has strong ties to the Pacific Resource Partnership, which operated the super PAC largely credited for catapulting Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell into office.
Seitz said his view is that a police commission appointment is little more than a resume-builder for someone seeking more clout within the existing political establishment.
“I have rarely been of the opinion that the Police Commission is well constituted to independently review and rein in the police department,” Setiz said. “They don’t come from those segments in the community who have the experience or knowledge of what the police do and how they’re viewed.”
Civilian oversight of police departments varies dramatically between jurisdictions. Some have more authority to investigate misconduct by individual officers, while others take a system-wide approach by appointing an internal auditor to make sure there are checks and balances in place to catch bad officers and poor practices.
The Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles released a report in 2005 that compared police oversight agencies across the country as part of a study commissioned by the city of Eugene, Oregon. The report found that every jurisdiction has its pluses and minuses, and that the authority to hire and fire a chief is a particular powerful mechanism of oversight.
But the report also noted that the strength of an organization alone does not guarantee effective oversight. Success is only found through the right combination of power, leadership and staffing that addresses both police and community concerns.
“We know in the world there will always be individuals who will do things that are bad. We can’t control all of these people all the time so what you try to do is develop systems so that the bad things don’t happen all the time.”– Cristina Beamud, Executive Director, Civilian Investigative Panel
Cristina Beamud was Eugene’s police auditor from 2006 to 2008. She’s also served as the director of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Today Beamud is the executive director of the Civilian Investigative Panel in Miami, Florida, which oversees a department of about 1,200 officers.
She says that even with her many years of policing the police she still doesn’t know what a perfect oversight model looks like.
“That’s the millions dollar question, isn’t it?” Beamud said. “We know in the world there will always be individuals who will do things that are bad. We can’t control all of these people all the time so what you try to do is develop systems so that the bad things don’t happen all the time.”
She said communities should pinpoint what’s causing a poor relations between the police and the community before settling on a particular model or area of reform. For example, is there tension between the police and minorities because of unfair policing practices? Or are the concerns with how the department investigates misconduct and disciplines officers?
While there’s no pure form of oversight, Beamud said it’s highly important to pick the right people to serve on a police commission to ensure that it enjoys public credibility.
Diversity is important, she said, and it can be achieved in a number of ways, including opening up the selection process to more than one person. Some jurisdictions allow each city council member to appoint a commissioner, while others have a selection committee interview candidates to ensure they have the skills required to do the job.
“The selection process is crucial when you want a board that is representative of the community,” Beamud said. “You want a group or a body that is reflective of different points of view. You don’t want people to be in agreement all the time because when people deliberate they make better decisions.”
Correa says he has long advocated taking the sole appointment power away from the mayor. It makes the process inherently political, especially if a mayor is elected to back-to-back terms. Such a scenario lets one person control the entire commission, he said.
Instead, Correa wants there to be a discussion about letting a cross section of the community have a say in who oversees the police. Until then, he said it’s up to Caldwell to restore the public’s trust.
“He needs to appoint three new people, and quickly,” Correa said. “And he needs to appoint people with integrity.”