For nearly two years the Honolulu Police Commission has been criticized for being soft on officer misconduct — especially its inaction regarding Chief Louis Kealoha, who is under federal investigation on accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

A Honolulu charter amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot aims to give the commission more authority to rein in problem officers, providing it with subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and force the disclosure of sensitive information.

Charter Amendment 1 would also allow the commission to suspend or fire a police chief for substance abuse, a failure to properly command the department or because his or her actions create a pervasive sense of mistrust and resentment among community members.

HPD Commission Chair Ronald Taketa. 7 sept 2016
Outgoing Chairman Ron Taketa and his colleagues on the Honolulu Police Commission have been on the defensive over how they’ve addressed officer misconduct. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s a significant step-up in authority for the commission, which today can only fire a chief for cause, including what is described as “gross and continuous maladministration,” a vague term that’s open to interpretation. Under the current charter, the chief can also save his job if he can remedy the alleged maladministration in a reasonable amount of time that’s not defined by law.

The amendment would also force the chief to defend in writing any disagreements with commission decisions, such as a recommendation that an officer be punished.

Loretta Sheehan, who was recently appointed to the commission by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, has been an outspoken critic of how the citizen oversight agency has handled the ongoing criminal probe of Kealoha.

That investigation, which is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, includes allegations of wrongdoing by other officers in the department as well the chief’s wife, Katherine Kealoha, who is a high-ranking city prosecutor.

So far, the commission has refused to launch its own investigation or even publicly rebuke the chief for the pall that has been cast over HPD.

“I’m not sure that our current Police Commission would use subpoena authority, even if the voters gave them that power.” — Loretta Sheehan

On paper, Sheehan said the proposed charter amendment would bolster the strength of the commission. But she noted its propensity for inaction could undermine the intent of the proposal.

“The Police Commission thus far has been unwilling to conduct any investigation into Chief Kealoha, even to examine whether he engaged in gross or continuous maladministration,” Sheehan said. “So I’m not sure that our current Police Commission would use subpoena authority, even if the voters gave them that power.”

She added that while she doesn’t speak for the entire commission, she would advocate for the use of subpoenas if the commission authorized an investigation.

Here’s the question that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot:

Should the Police Commission have greater authority to suspend or dismiss the chief of police and have additional powers to investigate complaints concerning officer misconduct, and should the chief of police be required to submit a written explanation for his or her disagreement with the Commission?

Over the past several years, many HPD officers have been arrested, charged with or convicted of crimes ranging from domestic violence and drunken driving to prostitution and extortion.

Through it all, the Police Commission has been mostly silent.

Dan Lawrence, executive officer of the Police Commission, said it supports the charter amendment.

Commissioners had some concerns about possible amendments that had been considered earlier, he said, including one that would have allowed the mayor to fire the chief, because it would have politicized a process that’s supposed to be insulated — but those proposals were ultimately left on the Honolulu Charter Commission’s cutting room floor.

“The (police) commission has generally been receptive to this final amendment,” Lawrence said. “They’ve never taken a vote or done anything formal (to oppose it) because nobody viewed it in a negative way.”

Outgoing Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa did not respond to a request for comment.

Taketa’s term on the commission expired at the end of last year, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced this week that he is nominating former state Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson to replace Taketa.

The mayor’s delay in finding a replacement for Taketa, as well as his refusal to advocate for Kealoha to step down, has been widely criticized.

Taketa has been an ardent defender of the commission and how it does its job.

Loretta Sheehan talks to press about her appointment to the Police Commission by Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Police Commission member Loretta Sheehan supports the charter amendment to strengthen the commission’s powers, but she isn’t sure it would do anything more even with the extra authority. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

During an Oct. 1, 2015, meeting, Taketa testified before the Charter Commission that media reports that have described the Police Commission as feckless were overblown.

At the time, several proposals had been submitted to toughen up the commission as well as increase transparency at HPD, including from Democratic state Sens. Will Espero and Laura Thielen and state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, who is a Republican.

Taketa downplayed the need for sweeping reforms, saying that the commission had all the authority it needed to make sure citizen complaints are addressed because it wields the ultimate power to hire and fire the chief. He said that subpoena power, while it would be nice, was unnecessary because the department had always been cooperative with the commission while it investigated citizen complaints.

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“The department does not ignore the commission and the commission is not powerless,” Taketa said. “We have quite a bit of influence over the chief and it is through the chief that we make our feelings known.”

The department has its own investigators in the Professional Standards Office who keep tabs on problem officers. Taketa said the office has more staff than the commission and can take on more serious complaints, including those that involve crimes committed by officers.

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers opposed most of the proposals related to the commission. In written testimony, SHOPO President Tenari Maafala was mostly concerned with making the chief an at-will employee, which is one of the provisions in the ballot measure, rather than sticking to the current five-year terms allowed under the city charter.

Maafala said it’s important to maintain consistency in the department and provide the chief with the job security necessary to make difficult decisions that aren’t always popular. He added that hiring a chief is a “long and arduous” process, and that allowing the commission to fire the chief for cause could limit the number of future applicants because they would be fearful of losing their job.

“The police department needs stability and consistency in leadership, and not here today, gone tomorrow at-a-whim chiefs,” Maafala said in a Feb. 2 letter to the Charter Commission. “The officers need the stability so it is clear what their Chief demands, and what direction the department is taking, so they can fully serve the community and keep the community safe.”

The union did not take a stance on the provisions in the amendment to give the police commission subpoena powers or require the chief to explain in writing disagreements with commission’s decisions.

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