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An ongoing federal corruption investigation into Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha has become a campaign theme in the race for Honolulu mayor.
Candidates Charles Djou and Peter Carlisle have both called on Kealoha to step aside while a grand jury considers an indictment against him and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, who is also accused of misusing her position as a city prosecutor.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell, on the other hand, said during a recent KITV/Civil Beat candidates forum that Chief Kealoha should continue to serve, at least until an indictment comes down. At that point, the mayor says it would be up to the Honolulu Police Commission to decide about Kealoha.
“I also am concerned about the allegations made against the chief, but they’re allegations,” Caldwell said. “No one is above the law. But to try someone based on the court of public opinion is not what we do in this country. We have a process. Let it work.”
Caldwell told the forum moderators that voters should focus on Honolulu being one of the safest cities in the U.S. instead of on the chief’s troubles with the law. The mayor, who was endorsed by the state police union, added that management of the Honolulu Police Department is “being handled very well at all levels.”
“If there is a cloud over the police department because of the actions of the police chief it reinforces the idea of corruption in the department, which is simply not true.” — Peter Carlisle
Caldwell’s opponents say that’s a cop-out. In separate interviews with Civil Beat, Djou and Carlisle said the mayor should take a strong stance on the chief’s status and that the integrity of the country’s 20th largest police department is at stake.
The chief and his wife were accused of framing her uncle for the theft of their mailbox in 2013. The FBI launched an investigation and the case is now being handled by a special prosecutor appointed out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.
“Something has to be done right now, because I think the image and the responsibilities of the police department have been compromised,” Carlisle said. “If there is a cloud over the police department because of the actions of the police chief it reinforces the idea of corruption in the department, which is simply not true.”
Carlisle, who was mayor before Caldwell, was Honolulu’s top prosecuting attorney from 1997 to 2010. While he agrees that Honolulu is a relatively safe city, he said Caldwell has no business taking credit for that distinction.
Carlisle said Honolulu consistently ranked as one of the safest big cities in America well before Caldwell was elected in 2012.
“I can happily say that in my opinion as a prosecutor for many years and as the elected prosecuting attorney that he had nothing to do with that,” Carlisle said. “I don’t know on what basis he has for understanding that. I don’t recall him ever working in law enforcement in his life.”
Djou, a former congressman and Honolulu City Council member, also criticized the mayor for a lack of leadership in the Kealoha matter. Like Caldwell, Djou said there’s no place for political interference in police commission matters.
But the challenger also said the mayor has the responsibility as the head of the city to speak out when necessary.
“I do think the public ought to know what the mayor thinks, and I think the mayor owes it to the people to be honest and straightforward with the people in terms of how the department under his authority should act,” Djou said. “So for me, it would be to very publicly and clearly communicate that I think the chief should temporarily step aside.”
Djou added that Kealoha should be held to a higher standard than a typical beat officer since he is the “personification” of the department. Other officers who are accused of misconduct often have their police powers revoked while the department conducts an investigation. Djou said he’s had a number of officers complain to him about a double-standard.
Even more troubling, Djou says, is the mayor’s comments about lower-ranking officers whose misconduct has been aired publicly. Although Caldwell has a history of avoiding questions on the police chief and other officers involved in misconduct, he has issued public statements on cases involving domestic violence within the police force.
“Why is it that if you’re at the top or you’re buddies with the mayor you get a lower standard of conduct applied to you than if you were just an average cop? That’s wrong.” — Charles Djou
In 2014, the mayor called on HPD to take “extreme action” in an incident in which HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola was caught on video repeatedly striking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant. The mayor’s comments came only after reporters asked him to address the issue during a press conference about a park opening.
Caldwell was also put on the spot earlier this year when Kealoha tried to appoint Maj. Ryan Borges to an assistant chief position. Borges has a history of domestic violence that HPD officials were aware of before offering him the job.
The mayor met with Kealoha to discuss the Borges promotion and issued a statement through a spokesman that condemned domestic violence. Caldwell did not address Kealoha’s judgment in approving the appointment.
Djou said Caldwell made the right decision when denouncing domestic violence. But what’s perplexing, Djou said, is that the mayor seems to be holding the officers to a different standard than the chief, and in particular Cachola, who was never charged with a crime.
“If you’re going to speak out and apply a standard to lower level officers why
aren’t you applying that standard to the chief?” Djou said. “Why is it that if you’re at the top or you’re buddies with the mayor you get a lower standard of conduct applied to you than if you were just an average cop? That’s wrong. It threatens the integrity, the respect and the trust of the community in your police force and that’s a very dangerous path to go down.”
Djou said the HPD needs to get a better handle on officer misconduct. The department has come under scrutiny over the past several years after numerous high-profile arrests of officers.
Legal settlements have cost taxpayers millions of dollars, including a $4.7 million payment approved by the Honolulu City Council this year to end a case involving racial and sexual discrimination within the ranks.
Honolulu’s police commission is the only form of citizen oversight of the department. But many have criticized the commission for being a toothless agency when it comes to reining in the most serious cases of misconduct. Questions have also been raised about whether the commissioners are doing an effective job of civilian oversight.
The commission handles citizen complaints about officers. Investigations into criminal conduct are usually performed by HPD’s internal affairs division. The commission also has the power to hire and fire the police chief.
Djou said the commission, which is made up of volunteers appointed by the mayor, doesn’t appear to be doing a good job policing HPD.
“It’s easy to dismiss if it was a one-time incident of police misconduct, but there have been so many recently that it’s becoming a pattern,” Djou said. “The police commission needs to do a better job of tackling this because if it doesn’t what happens is the public as a whole will begin to distrust the police department. … If you don’t take care of these bad apples promptly, quickly and transparently — and that transparency is where the problem is — you’re going to get problems.”
Most police commission decisions are made behind closed doors. The same is true of HPD’s internal affairs investigations. Rarely are details released about officers being punished for misconduct. The state’s public records law also shields most officers from having their disciplinary records released even if they were busted for egregious misconduct.
Djou said all the secrecy can give the public the perception that officer wrongdoing is being swept under the rug. But he also said that the city needs to be careful about releasing details about cops who get into trouble for minor infractions so as not to alienate those individuals or make them second-guess their decisions in the field.
Caldwell’s campaign staff said last week that he couldn’t talk with Civil Beat in person or over the phone about police issues before the Aug. 13 primary.
Carlisle has a similar view, although he believes there are already an appropriate number of checks and balances to catch officer misconduct. The former mayor trusts HPD’s internal affairs division and has a generally positive view of the police commission, and in particular the handful of commissioners he appointed while in office, some of whom still serve on the board.
“I think the police department right now is going through an unusual set of circumstances,” Carlisle said. “Do I think there’s a burning necessity right now to change lots of policies? No, I do not.”
Caldwell refused to be interviewed for this report. His campaign staff said last week that he wouldn’t talk with Civil Beat in person or over the phone about police issues before the Aug. 13 primary.
Among the questions Civil Beat wanted to ask the mayor is why he has yet to make a decision about Ron Taketa’s future as chairman of the Honolulu Police Commission.
Taketa is the head of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, which through the efforts of the Pacific Resource Partnership was influential in getting Caldwell elected to office in 2012. Taketa’s term on the commission expired Dec. 31, 2015 and Caldwell has made no move to reappoint or replace him.
In June, Caldwell held a press conference to announce two appointments to the commission. He said he was reappointing Commissioner Max Sword, a lobbyist for the tourism industry, to another five-year term.
He also nominated Loretta Sheehan, a former prosecutor and vocal advocate of domestic violence victims, to replace Commissioner Helen Hamada, whose term had expired at the end of 2014.
Hamada was the only police commissioner to publicly say earlier this year that her confidence in the chief was eroding.