The Honolulu Police Commission emerged from a two-hour closed-door session Wednesday without making a decision on the status of Police Chief Louis Kealoha who is embroiled in a federal corruption investigation.
Commission Chair Max Sword said the panel plans to reconvene at 11:30 a.m. Friday and is in recess until then.
“We needed more information that will help us in our decision-making,” Sword told reporters gathered outside the packed hearing, which was held at the Honolulu Police Department.
Sword wouldn’t say what that information is or where it would come from. But he said the commission planned to make a decision on Friday.
In fact, despite the urging of several people who testified at the hearing that the situation swirling around the chief be discussed openly in public, Sword refused to disclose what the seven commissioners talked about in the executive session.
He did say the commission formally ratified its decision to allow Kealoha to go on indefinite leave with pay after the chief told them last month that he had been notified by the U.S. Justice Department he is a target of the federal investigation into public corruption and conspiracy.
Sword, who noted that Friday’s discussion of Kealoha also will be in secret, declined to say what might happen next, and whether the commission might move ahead with stricter actions, such as suspension or termination.
“We want to make sure that whatever decision we make is the correct decision to move forward,” Sword said. “There was a difference of opinions, but it was a frank discussion. We have different ideas for how to approach it and that’s what the discussion was about. It wasn’t throwing rocks at anybody or anything like that. It was a good discussion.”
Kealoha’s criminal defense attorney, Myles Breiner, was not at Wednesday’s hearing. But he told Civil Beat that his client is expected to meet with the commissioners before any decisions are made.
“My understanding is that they want to meet with the chief and have an opportunity to go into executive session to discuss things with him,” Breiner said. “I think the chief is entitled to have his day. He’s not been found guilty of anything.”
The commissioners voted unanimously to take up the Kealoha matter in closed session instead of in public because they consider it to be a personnel matter and because the chief still has a privacy interest.
Several people testified in opposition to the closed-door session, including state Sen. Will Espero, who has been pushing for more police accountability and transparency in light of the federal investigation into the chief, his wife and other officers as well as numerous other cases of officer misconduct that have surfaced over the years.
“This is an opportunity for you to help boost any perception one may have of the police commission and all of our hard-working police officers,” Espero said.
“I believe if we look at it from the perspective of (having) as much transparency and openness as possible, I believe the public will be supportive of your efforts and they will support any decision that you make because I and many of us know that we have a very esteemed, intelligent group of individuals who know that the spotlight is on them and that they will do the right thing,” he said.
Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, had a similar message for the commission. Black, whose nonprofit law firm advocates for open government, said there’s no provision in state’s Sunshine Law regarding government meetings that required the commission to move behind closed doors.
But rather than quibble with the commissioners and their attorneys over legal justifications for holding an open meeting, Black said he wanted to focus on the intrinsic benefits that would come from a public discussion about such a pressing topic.
“Public access in this context is about you all as much as it is about whoever is the chief of police because it’s about giving the public the ability to observe what you do and how you do your jobs so that they have trust in the situation that’s developed and that it’s being handled the right way,” Black said.
But “it’s not just about building trust in the commission,” he added. “I think that trust — the knowledge that this commission is doing true oversight for the entire department — that spills over and further develops trust in the department and all of the officers.”
Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, are at the center of the federal investigation that stems from the 2013 theft of a mailbox from the Kealohas former house in Kahala. Her uncle, Gerard Puana, was ultimately charged with destruction of the mailbox and was taken to trial in federal court. But the case ended in a mistrial.
Puana’s defense attorney alerted federal prosecutors that he thought his client was being framed by the Kealohas. They forwarded the case to the FBI and an investigation began that has been going on for months.
Late last year, one Honolulu police officer pleaded guilty to conspiring to set up Puana and is helping federal officials with the investigation.
But not everyone on the police commission has been content to let the federal investigation play out separately. Commissioner Loretta Sheehan, a former prosecutor who was named to the commission in June, has been more proactive than most of her colleagues when it comes to raising questions.
She’s directly asked Kealoha questions about the federal investigation as well as other officer misconduct within the department in the last few years.
On Wednesday, she pressed Acting Police Chief Cary Okimoto and Deputy Chief Jerry Inouye to explain how other police officers caught in the federal investigation were being treated.
At least four other officers have received target letters from the Justice Department. Inouye and Okimoto said all of those officers have had their police and supervisory powers stripped and have been reassigned to desk duty. Department officials have refused to release the names of those officers.
Sheehan and Commissioner Steve Levinson, a former associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court and the newest member of the commission, asked Okimoto for an assessment of department morale. Okimoto said it was improving. But he also noted that the fact that the investigation has dragged on for so long has been draining.
“I just think that everyone is walking on pins and needles and not really sure about what’s going to happen,” Okimoto said.
Inouye said top administrators are communicating with the rank and file to make sure they know what’s going on, particularly as it relates to who is currently in charge. He said they’ve also been doing their best to encourage officers on the street who might be worried about public perception of the department in a time of turmoil.
“We communicate with our commanders to give them a brief synopsis of what’s going on and to let them know that … we plan to continue our public service,” Inouye said. “We still believe in them as employees of this police department. We still believe in this department very strongly. I think that people believe in this department because of the officers on the road, not necessarily because of anybody on the fourth floor.”