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Honolulu’s newest police commissioner turned Wednesday’s Honolulu Police Commission meeting into a detailed inquiry about the department’s lax handling of police misconduct.
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.
Loretta Sheehan, a former assistant U.S. attorney, who was recently appointed to the commission by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, spent much of the meeting asking pointed questions about recent cases in which officers were arrested or implicated in scandals that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal settlements.
Prior to Sheehan’s appointment, the commission had been reluctant to challenge the police chief on problems within the department, at least in open session. Kealoha and his wife are the subject of a federal corruption probe, a fact commission members wouldn’t even acknowledge for months.
“From my personal perspective I’m happy that the police commission engaged in a robust public forum,” Sheehan said after the meeting. “This is how it’s supposed to be. We represent the citizens of the city and county, and we have an obligation to ask the chief questions.”
No topic was off limits for Sheehan.
She even addressed the chief’s own troubles with the law, asking him if he had received a “target letter” from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding its investigation into Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, for public corruption and abuse of power.
She said she was aware that several HPD officers had been served with DOJ letters warning them that they had been implicated in criminal activity and should retain a lawyer. She wanted to know if those officers had been placed on desk duty as department protocol would dictate. She also asked the chief if he had received a letter, which he said he had not.
“We haven’t received any word of any of our officers receiving target letters,” Kealoha said. “We have a policy that requires them — in the event that there’s going to be legal action that’s going to be taken against them in their duties — that they notify us. We have not been notified of any officers receiving target letters.”
Sheehan focused much of her attention on a handful of high-profile cases of officer misconduct that have played out in the media over the past several years. In some instances her questions revealed new information that had been withheld from the public, including suspicions that officers who had witnessed police brutality had covered up for one another when questioned by investigators.
Specifically, Sheehan wanted to know about HPD officer Keoki Duarte, who faces criminal charges for allegedly beating a man during a road rage incident. Duarte is currently on desk duty while the case is pending.
But he had also previously been named in a lawsuit in which two hikers accused him and other officers of falsely arresting them for burglary and using excessive force during the arrest.
The case was settled for $167,500, but civil court documents revealed serious questions about the effectiveness of the Honolulu Police Commission and HPD’s disciplinary process.
None of the officers involved were punished despite a police commission finding that at least two of the eight officers involved had used excessive force when pinning the hikers on the ground, seriously injuring one.
Deputy Police Chief Cary Okimoto, who sat next to Kealoha throughout the meeting, said that HPD’s own administrative review panel was unable to prove that the officers had done anything wrong. He said it was also plausible that the officers needed to use force to pin the hikers on the ground so they didn’t fall off a steep cliff.
“When we tried to interview them and find out which of the officers allegedly assaulted (the hikers) or hurt them in any way they couldn’t identify who it was,” Okimoto said. “I just didn’t think it was fair to say that all of them did that.”
Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa also defended HPD’s actions in the case despite the commission’s previous findings.
“I don’t think it was so much that officers did nothing wrong as much as it was that they didn’t have enough proof that the officers did something wrong,” Taketa told Sheehan.
Sheehan then turned to a $4.7 million legal settlement in a case that involved systemic racial discrimination at HPD in which several officers — one black, one Mexican-American and one white — alleged their lives had been put in danger.
She focused specifically on one defendant, Lt. Dan Kwon, who admitted during a deposition to making disparaging remarks about the officers, including calling the Mexican-American officer a “beaner,” “seniorita” and “wetback.” An internal review by HPD found that Kwon should be suspended, but Kealoha overturned that decision.
“What message does that send to our community when you exonerated someone who has admitted to using these kind of slurs?” Sheehan asked.
Kealoha defended his action, saying that the city’s human resources department told him he couldn’t follow through with the suspension. He also noted that HPD must be aware of many other factors, including an employee’s rights under the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
“All of these cases we have we take seriously,” Kealoha said. “But it’s not done in isolation.”
Sheehan was particularly perturbed by an HPD officer’s arrest last year of two women inside a North Shore grocery store after they were hugging and kissing each other in the aisle. The women filed a lawsuit saying the the officer, Bobby Harrison, had arrested them because he was offended by their actions.
The city settled the case for $80,000, and Harrison subsequently retired from the force. But an internal affairs investigation did not sustain the allegations made against him.
Sheehan pressed Kealoha and Okimoto to explain how it would be OK for an officer to make an arrest of someone just for kissing.
She then questioned whether Harrison had illegally detained the women, getting into a heated back-and-forth over the circumstances of the incident as explained to the commission by Harrison and as spelled out in court documents.
Sheehan said the women were at the check-out counter when Harrison approached them and told them to go to the customer service center because he had received complaints about them inappropriately touching each other.
“That’s an illegal detention because there was no illegal activity,” Sheehan said. “You can’t detain women for kissing. You can’t. It’s perfectly legal.”
Kealoha asked for a break. He told Sheehan that many of her questions could be answered in greater detail if he and his administrators could have the time to go back and review the facts rather than rely on their memories.
“We don’t want to put this case here on trial,” he said. “If you do have questions and if you want to get back into the weeds of the situation, please give us the questions so we can have an opportunity to answer them on a fair playground.”
Sheehan didn’t receive much back up from her colleagues. A number of commissioners, including Taketa, challenged Sheehan’s recitation of the facts, particularly when it came to the case involving the two women kissing.
Commissioners Luella Costales and Cha Thompson also called upon HPD to highlight the strides it has made in addressing domestic violence, an issue the department has struggled with in recent years, particularly within its own ranks.
SHOPO President Tenari Maafala gave an impassioned speech at Wednesday’s meeting in defense of the chief and his officers.
It was the second time Maafala had testified before the police commission in support of the department and, in particular, Kealoha.
The union boss also vigorously defended the commission’s decision in December 2014 to not investigate the chief despite a looming FBI probe regarding allegations that he and his wife had framed her uncle for stealing their mailbox.
On Wednesday, he blamed the media for tainting the image of the police department and giving short shrift to stories about officers who die in the line of duty or go above and beyond what is asked of them. His remarks were greeted with smiles and head nods from several of the commissioners, namely Costales, Thompson and Marc Tilker.
“Law enforcement across America has been thrown under the bus, so to speak, and for the most part it’s prematurely,” Maafala said. “Because we’re police officers the assumption is that we waive our Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right of due process. So police officers are literally guilty until proven innocent, whereas the constitution clearly states we are innocent until proven guilty.”
Sheehan said after the meeting she didn’t want to comment on Maafala’s speech or the actions of her colleagues, saying only that “in any group there’s going to be differences of opinion.”
She also refused to speculate about how upcoming meetings will play out, especially as federal indictments loom.
“I have no idea what’s in the future for the Honolulu Police Department, for the chief of police or for the police commission,” Sheehan said. “I just know that public debate is essential for government.”