Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who is in the middle of a growing corruption scandal that has already resulted in one of his officers pleading guilty to federal conspiracy charges, will retire, according to police commission Chairman Max Sword.
The announcement came Friday afternoon after the police commission met behind closed doors for more than an hour to discuss the chief’s fate. Sword addressed the media after the secret meeting to relay the news, but he did not take any questions.
He was flanked by Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who is the city’s top attorney. Leong did not address reporters.
“The chief has agreed to retire,” Sword said. “We have come to an agreement in principle on his retirement and we are working the details out at this point. We’ll have the final approval by the commission at the meeting on Jan. 18.
“At this point, I would like to thank the chief for his many years of service. I believe it’s over 30 years of service. We wish him well in his retirement.”
“The agony is going to be coming to an end very, very, very soon.” — Police Commissioner Steven Levinson
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued a statement thanking the commission for “taking decisive action on this matter,” and threw his support behind Deputy Chief Cary Okimoto, who will serve as the acting police chief until the commission finds a permanent replacement for Kealoha.
“I believe the Commission made the right decision to accept Chief Kealoha’s retirement, and he made the correct decision for the sake of the police department and the thousands of officers who serve with integrity, respect and fairness,” Caldwell said.
Kealoha had voluntarily placed himself on leave last month after he was officially notified by the FBI that he was a suspect in the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal probe. At least four other officers have similarly received notifications that they are the targets of the FBI investigation, and have had their police powers removed.
The ongoing criminal probe began nearly two years ago with allegations that he and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a high-ranking city prosecutor, attempted to frame her uncle to gain the upper hand in a family fight over money.
Honolulu Police Commissioner Steven Levinson did not want to discuss the specifics of what was said during Friday’s executive session meeting. He did say, however, that commissioners agreed to allow Sword and Leong to negotiate with Kealoha’s civil attorney, Kevin Sumida, on a final retirement deal.
Sumida was not at Friday’s meeting, but he did attend Wednesday. After that meeting, Sumida ignored reporters’ requests for comment.
Levinson, a former associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court, said that once the agreement is completed it will be made public.
He said he didn’t want to disclose any more details until the agreement is finalized and signed. He said he wasn’t sure exactly when Kealoha’s last day will be, adding if the chief follows through on his promise to retire that it would be “soon, but not immediate.”
The retired judge, who was appointed in October, also defended the commission’s approach to handling the chief’s employment status. It has come under fire for its seemingly lax approach in dealing with officer misconduct, as well as its refusal to launch its own investigation of the chief.
“What has been happening in federal court obviously is significant and probably has something to do with why the chief is willing not to duke it out until the bitter end,” Levinson said. “I believe that since I’ve been on the commission, the commission has been doing its job. Often disputes take longer to resolve than most people would like, and often even for the parties themselves. The agony is going to be coming to an end very, very, very soon.”
The police commission held a closed-door meeting Wednesday to discuss the chief’s status, but decided to hold off on a decision until Friday so that it could gather more information.
Brian Black, the executive director for the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, has questioned the police commission’s need for secrecy when discussing Kealoha’s future, saying the public has a right to know how it the commission is performing its oversight duties.
He submitted testimony to the commission suggesting that its reasoning for going behind closed doors didn’t pass legal muster, either under the state’s Sunshine Law that allows public access to government meetings or the Hawaii Office of Information Practices that enforces the law.
On Friday, Black reiterated his concerns after police commissioners again deliberated in private at HPD headquarters.
“The interpretations of the Sunshine Law that it’s apparent the police commission has been using are troubling,” Black said. “I don’t think those interpretations are consistent with the language of the Sunshine Law or the OIP opinions interpreting the law. That issue is going to have to be resolved.”
Kealoha became Honolulu’s police chief in 2009. The Honolulu Police Department is the 20th largest in the country with about 2,000 sworn officers.
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