It’s no secret Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, are under federal investigation for possible corruption and abuse of power.

The Honolulu Police Commission has not asked Kealoha to step aside while he’s under investigation. The chief said he’s done nothing wrong and is adamant about staying put.

Major stands giving speech at the opening of the new Honolulu Police Department, Waianae station.
The chief still has his police powers despite being under criminal investigation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This hasn’t gone over well with some officers who have complained of a double standard. They say that under departmental policy they’d be pushing papers by now if they were in the same situation.

Civil Beat decided to check out the Honolulu Police Departments policy on desk duty but that has proven surprisingly difficult because the HPD redacted large portions of the policy.

Here’s a sample taken from the policy posted on HPD’s website:

HPD has a long history of redacting police records, including its policies.
HPD has a long history of redacting police records, including its policies. 

Sometimes when Honolulu officers are accused of wrongdoing the department takes away their police powers and assigns them to desk duty.

The process is commonly referred to as being “ROPA’d” — restriction of police authority.

Here’s a brief description from the unredacted portion of HPD’s policy:

In any situation in which misconduct is alleged and/or irregularities exist, the rights of the officer shall be balanced with operational concerns, the reputation of the department, and the best interests of the community. The restriction of police authority is an order by the Chief of Police to an officer to cease the use of any police authority until further notice. This order may require the officer to turn in certain police equipment (including department-issued firearms and ammunition).

There have been a lot of questions about how this policy applies to the chief.

Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan recently grilled Kealoha about HPD’s ROPA policy. She also pressed him on news that the U.S. Department of Justice had begun issuing target letters to suspects as part of its criminal probe into the Kealohas.

Target letters inform recipients that they could be facing criminal charges.

Specifically, Sheehan wanted to know if any of the officers had been ROPA’d as a result of receiving a target letter. She also wanted to know what the chief would do should he receive a letter himself.

“I haven’t approached that yet,” he told her.

HPD Chief Louis Kealoha at HART train opening. 2 may 2016.
HPD Chief Louis Kealoha has kept a low profile ever since learning he was the subject of an FBI investigation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sheehan told Civil Beat this week that the ROPA policy didn’t really answer her question.

She said she has read an unredacted version of the policy, but said that she couldn’t comment on HPD’s decision to withhold some of the information from the public because she was unfamiliar with the department’s redaction rules.

“The policy dictates the appropriate response when an officer is under investigation,” Sheehan said. “I wanted to be assured that the ROPA policy was being applied uniformly in light of news stories that I had seen that target letters were sent to Honolulu Police Department officers. The policy is also unclear as to how it applies to the chief of police.”

So what does the HPD gain by withholding portions of its ROPA policy from public view?

Not So Public

According to a footnote, it’s to protect “security procedures” and to “avoid the frustration of a legitimate government function,” the latter contention being one that open government advocates often criticize as one of the broadest and most overused exemptions in the state public records law.

Civil Beat asked HPD officials to expand on why they felt the policy should be redacted. Here’s what HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in a written statement:

“Most of the policies are posted in their entirety,” Yu said. “Portions of some policies were redacted to avoid the frustration of a legitimate government function, such as information that could hamper investigators, pose a threat to public or officer safety, or disclose techniques that could potentially enable persons to thwart police tactics or procedures.”

The ROPA policy isn’t the only one that HPD doesn’t want the public to see. Other redacted policies include those for use of force and sex crime investigations.

Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest a Honolulu-based nonprofit that advocates for more government transparency, says the lack of transparency is a problem. He sent a letter to Kealoha this week asking him to reconsider some of the redactions that Black believes are based on outdated legal opinions.

Black wrote in his letter that there’s a significant public interest in HPD releasing the redacted information contained in some of its policies, particularly related to use of force and sex crime investigations:

With the 2014 death of Eric Garner from an NYPD officer’s misuse of a vascular neck restraint, policies and procedures for such restraints are the subject of intense public interest to monitor how officers are held accountable for use of force. Similarly, the public interest in procedures surrounding sex crime investigations is substantial, especially with the high-profile coverage of neglected sexual assault cases.

Black also specifically called out redactions in HPD’s policy for serving warrants, which he said “covers issues of such significant importance as the procedure when a suspect may have been misidentified.”

He told the chief that most of the redactions are overly broad and addressing them could be a positive move toward more openness and transparency at a time when public scrutiny of police actions is intense.

Black told Civil Beat that the reason he decided to reach out in the first place is because he’s received a number of complaints and inquiries about the redactions in HPD’s policies ever since the department decided to post them online.

As of Wednesday, Black had yet to receive a response from Kealoha or the department.

“You can’t effectively police people unless you are using methods they approve of,” Black said. “And if you can’t find out what those policies and procedures are then it just generates distrust and it has a negative impact on the department’s ability to police citizens.”

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