Loretta Sheehan, a former prosecutor, was only nominated to the Honolulu Police Commission on Friday, but she already has big ideas for how to rebuild trust in the agency after watching its stature crumble under the weight of scandals involving officer misconduct and excessive use of force.
Sheehan, who now works in private practice for Davis Levin Livingston, sits on the board of advisors for the Domestic Violence Action Center, and was a strong advocate for more oversight of local police during a well-publicized legislative hearing in 2014 that was called after video of a local officer pounding his girlfriend in a public restaurant went viral.
As a police commissioner, she said, she wants to address domestic violence issues at the Honolulu Police Department as well as push for more transparency. For example, she said she feels that too many Police Commission decisions are made behind closed doors.
“It would really serve the Police Department to be more transparent,” Sheehan said during a press conference held inside Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office Friday. “I think they would actually find a great benefit and there would be much more public understanding of the difficult job that they do.
“I don’t know that as a member of the Police Commission that I could force more transparency, but I certainly think transparency is pretty much always a good thing,” said Sheehan, whose nomination must still be approved by the City Council.
Caldwell nominated Sheehan to replace Commissioner Helen Hamada, whose five-year term on the seven-member commission officially expired Dec. 31, 2014. Hamada has served as a holdover since then as Caldwell searched for a replacement.
The mayor said Friday that he is hopeful Sheehan’s background will bring “a breath of fresh air” to the Police Commission, which he described as one of the most important agencies in the city because it deals directly with public safety.
It has come under fire lately for its inaction regarding a federal investigation into Police Chief Louis Kealoha. The commission is charged with investigating citizen complaints, but it has been accused of being toothless when it comes to dealing with misconduct and little more than a rubber stamp.
“You have to have the courage to look within, and to examine whether your Police Department is tolerating racism, whether your Police Department is tolerating violence against women, whether your Police Department is tolerating excessive force.” — Loretta Sheehan, Caldwell nominee to Honolulu Police Commission
“This administration is about change,” Caldwell said. “When you look at what Loretta’s experience is, it fits spot-on for what we need at the Honolulu Police Department and for the commission right now and the issues that we’re facing.”
Sheehan was a deputy prosecuting attorney in Honolulu from 1986 to 1995, and then worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Hawaii from 1995 to 2009, where she was also involved in criminal prosecutions.
Sheehan said it’s been hard to ignore the many instances in which Honolulu police officers have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, whether for domestic violence, drugs or other serious criminal offenses. She cited a recent $4.7 million settlement involving racial discrimination that set a record for the largest payout ever by HPD for a lawsuit.
“Here’s the thing: If you’re the Honolulu Police Department you have to be brave,” Sheehan said. “You have to have the courage to look within, and to examine whether your Police Department is tolerating racism, whether your Police Department is tolerating violence against women, whether your Police Department is tolerating excessive force.
“So I felt very strongly that what was needed here was courage, and from my experience I know that it’s there. I think we just have to foster it.”
Sheehan also addressed the ongoing federal grand jury investigation into Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who is a city prosecutor, over alleged corruption, abuse of power and civil rights violations. The Police Commission has taken a back seat to the federal investigation, and has refused to launch its own probe or take any disciplinary action against the chief. Instead, Kealoha has continued to receive high marks.
Commission Chairman Ron Taketa has said that commissioners have asked Kealoha and his wife about the allegations against them, which stem from the curious circumstances surrounding the theft of their mailbox in 2013. The Kealohas have repeatedly said that they’ve done nothing wrong. Taketa said federal investigators have also refused to talk.
Sheehan said the commission could be more proactive to assure the public that it’s doing its job of holding the chief and his department accountable, especially given the circumstances surrounding the federal investigation.
“The Police Commission has the authority to investigate,” Sheehan said. “I appreciate their position that they don’t want to do anything while another agency is investigating, but I do think they could certainly ask questions of the parties who are involved. Now those parties might say, ‘no we’re not going to talk to you,’ and that’s their right. But at least then the public would know that the Police Commission tried, that they asked. I haven’t seen that yet.”
In particular, she wants to know why the commission has not contacted federal public defender Alexander Silvert, who is largely responsible for the ongoing criminal investigation into the Kealohas and others who might have been involved.
Silvert represented Gerard Puana in the mailbox theft case, which ended in a mistrial after the chief blurted out details of Puana’s criminal past while testifying under oath. Puana is Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, and had been in the middle of an acrimonious legal fight with her over money around the time the mailbox disappeared.
Silvert alleged that Puana was framed by the Kealohas to help them in their civil suit. He said he also had proof that HPD had mishandled its investigation into the mailbox case by withholding evidence and falsifying reports.
“I haven’t seen anyone calling up Ali Silvert and saying, ‘Well, what evidence of wrongdoing did you uncover? We’d like to know,’” Sheehan said. “I think that could be very useful.”
Caldwell, on the other hand, did everything he could Friday to avoid addressing the Kealoha situation. He was asked numerous times to weigh in on how the commission was handling the police chief, and whether he believed Kealoha should step down during the criminal probe.
He was also asked if he should take a leadership position on the matter as the city’s top elected official.
“I’m not going to speculate,” Caldwell said. “I have a commission that makes that decision and I have complete confidence and trust in the commission to make the right decision should that decision need to be made.”
The mayor also decided to reappoint Max Sword to another five-year term through Dec. 31, 2020.
Sword is a registered lobbyist for Outrigger Enterprises Group, a major tourism, resort and hotel developer based in Honolulu. He was appointed to a partial term on the Police Commission in 2009 by former Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Sword was reappointed to a full-five year term two years later by then-Mayor Peter Carlisle.
Sword did not attend Caldwell’s press conference Friday. Caldwell said he decided to reappoint Sword because he valued his perspectives on how how the police interact with visitors and the industry that caters to them.
The mayor dismissed any political blowback he might receive for reappointing someone to the commission despite all the recent criticism.
“I’m reappointing Max because I do want to have a voice for the visitor industry on the commission,” Caldwell said. “It’s us local folks and our visitors who are impacted by the good work of the Honolulu Police Department, and I want to make sure there is that representation there. He’s completely connected into Waikiki and the visitor industry and has a lot of experience in that area.”
The mayor declined to address whether he would reappoint Taketa, whose term expired Dec. 31. Taketa is the head of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, which was instrumental in getting Caldwell elected in 2012 by taking out his opponent, former Hawaii. Gov. Ben Cayetano, through the use of a super PAC that was funded by the union’s market recovery fund.
Caldwell, who was endorsed by the statewide police union Thursday, said he thought Taketa was doing a “great job” on the commission.