If there were any doubts that former Assistant U.S. Attorney Loretta Sheehan would shake things up on the Honolulu Police Commission she quickly dispelled them last week in only her second meeting as a commission member.
Picking up on multiple disturbing police matters that have appeared in Honolulu media coverage, Sheehan opened up a line of questioning on the cases with candor, digging into details that have too often been glossed over or ignored altogether in previous commission meetings.
In other words, she behaved exactly as a commission member should: asking serious, critical questions in an open, public forum of a police department for which she and her commission colleagues have oversight responsibilities.
Quite a refreshing change of pace for a body that has been rightly criticized for its ineffectiveness and lack of spine in more matters than we care to count.
We liked what we heard from Commissioner Sheehan, though that feeling does not appear to be widely shared by her commission colleagues. That’s regrettable, as her frankness stands in such stark contrast to the deference they’ve given the police department on issues where they should have been asking hard questions and meting out tough love.
First among those matters is the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Hawaii Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a Honolulu city prosecutor.
Sheehan asked a series of questions about “target letters” that DOJ sends to individuals who may have been implicated in criminal investigations the federal agency is conducting. Sheehan wanted to know whether the chief had recently received such a letter himself and whether others in the department had, as well.
These are not inconsequential questions. When an officer receives a target letter, depending on the circumstances, the chief might be compelled to invoke department policy concerning restriction of police authority, also called ROPA. Only the chief is empowered to give a ROPA order. If the chief himself were to receive a target letter from DOJ, department policy is unclear as to whether he might be subject to ROPA and, if he were, who would give that order.
Kealoha told Sheehan and the commission that he hadn’t received a target letter nor was he copied on any target letters that may have gone to other officers.
Sheehan’s questions on the Justice Department inquiry and other matters broke a pattern of passivity if not outright silence from the commission on incidents that have been in their purview for months. These include the case of a group of officers who violently beat up two hikers they mistook for criminal suspects and a lesbian couple harassed, detained and arrested in a local grocery store by an off-duty cop who was offended that the two were kissing while shopping.
Those two cases alone cost taxpayers nearly a quarter-million dollars in settlements. But that’s chump change compared to the $4.7 million shelled out earlier this year to settle a case alleging racism, sexism, retaliation and cover-up by the department’s leadership.
As Civil Beat’s Nick Grube pointed out in his coverage of the commission meeting, “It was the first time Chief Louis Kealoha and other top police officials had been openly challenged by the commission about problems that have been repeatedly raised in other venues, including the media.”
Caldwell has an opportunity to inject some much-needed life into this important oversight body with the addition of more reform-minded members like Sheehan.
Speaking with Civil Beat later in the week, Sheehan was less than pleased with the responses to her questions, which often seemed to rationalize or seek to justify police conduct or past commission actions.
“I don’t expect anyone or any department to be perfect. Everyone’s going to make mistakes,” she said, making it clear that she was speaking for herself only and that her opinions don’t necessarily reflect those of the commission. “The question is how do we acknowledge our mistakes and respond to our mistakes? What I saw the other day was a complete denial that police officers make mistakes.”
Sheehan’s appointment to the seven-member commission is inexplicably the only new face brought to the oversight board by Mayor Kirk Caldwell. He reappointed Marc Tilker and more recently Max Sword, but Tilker was first named to the commission by Mayor Mufi Hannemann seven years ago and Sword was originally appointed by Mayor Peter Carlisle.
But Caldwell still has the chance to reshape the board and give Sheehan the support she clearly needs. Chairman Ron Taketa’s term expired at the end of 2015. But Caldwell has shown little interest in replacing him.
Is that because Taketa is chair of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, which was extremely helpful in Caldwell’s election in 2012?
Meanwhile, the term of Luella Costales, a Carlisle appointee, concludes at the end of this year. If he’s re-elected, Caldwell could put forward a new commissioner to begin in January.
We appreciate the service of any citizen who agrees to the often challenging and completely volunteer demands of the commission, but we believe Caldwell has an opportunity to inject some much-needed life into this important oversight body with the addition of more reform-minded members like Sheehan. Two votes to bring overdue change to the commission are within the mayor’s grasp now and a third is less than three months away.
The coming weeks and months may well bring dramatic change to the police department as well. The possibility of an indictment of Kealoha looms particularly large and the same commission that finds each year that the chief’s performance “exceeds expectations” despite obvious and major deficiencies cannot be relied upon to take decisive action, should it be required to do so.
Caldwell should ignore the voices already grumbling that Sheehan needs to be reined in and take advantage of the opportunity to fill the pent-up need for fresh leadership on the police commission by replacing Taketa now.
By doing so now, in advance of the November election, he can show that strong, appropriate oversight of the Honolulu Police Department is just as important to him as securing his own re-election.