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In 2006, Jimmy Borges quit the Honolulu Police Commission in the middle of his five-year term because he was worried Mayor Mufi Hannemann was appointing people who weren’t qualified to do the job.
The irony was that Borges himself had no background in law enforcement or government accountability that might have made him better suited to regulate one of the largest police departments in the country.
He was a jazz singer who was best known as Hawaii’s Frank Sinatra. But most of all he considered himself smart.
“The most important criteria is intelligence,” the late Borges said during a 2015 television interview. “You can’t just appoint somebody who’s a pal but basically whose IQ is closer to his belt size.”
Borges wasn’t alone in his displeasure. His close friend, Cha Thompson, herself a well-known entertainer who had appeared in TV shows such as “Hawaii Five-O,” “Jake and the Fatman” and “Magnum, P.I.,” walked away from the commission for similar reasons.
Like Borges, Thompson didn’t boast the credentials one might expect. She helped run Tihati Productions, a Polynesian cultural entertainment company that hires musicians, dancers and choreographers to perform at luaus, private parties and convention centers.
Thompson has since been reappointed.
The makeup of the Police Commission has often been a reflection of the state’s insular socio-political dynamics dominated by government insiders with strong ties to business, tourism and organized labor.
While it doesn’t usually make headlines, the commission was thrust into public consciousness when Police Chief Louis Kealoha was named as a target of a public corruption investigation. Then it negotiated the terms of Kealoha’s departure.
Now, as the board embarks on the crucial task of hiring a new police chief, Civil Beat is taking a closer look at who serves on the civilian oversight panel and whether new qualifications for membership should be established.
In November, Oahu voters approved a ballot measure that gave the commission more power to investigate misconduct and fire the chief.
Hawaii lawmakers have joined in the reform efforts by pushing legislation to beef up the competency of county police commissioners so that they can better respond to complaints of civil rights abuses and violence against women.
And Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s latest two appointments have brought a new level of legal expertise to the commission that already seems to be paying dividends, even if it has caused some friction.
Recently appointed Commissioner Steven Levinson spent 17 years as an associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court and fancies himself a political creature, but he was taken aback when he got an inside look at the commission.
“To most people the commission is kind of a black box,” Levinson said. “Before I was on the Police Commission, I really didn’t have much occasion to think about it, and I’m not being facetious. … I think the community at large overwhelmingly doesn’t understand much about the Police Commission.”
The Honolulu Police Commission has been charged with providing civilian oversight of law enforcement on Oahu since it was formed in 1932 to help curb corruption and political meddling.
Commissioners are supposed to review citizen complaints about officer misconduct and excessive use of force. They decide when an officer gets legal representation and have a hand in reviewing HPD’s budget. But by far the commission’s greatest authority lies in its management of the police chief.
It is the only entity that can hire, fire or suspend a chief, which gives commissioners extraordinary power when it comes to public safety and accountability.
Concerns have been raised over the years about the credentials of the commissioners — all of whom are appointed by the mayor — especially given the many HPD scandals.
When Borges and Thompson resigned, the department was reeling from a federal corruption probe that targeted illegal cockfighting and gambling on the North Shore. Five officers were indicted as a part of the sting, and up to 50 others were implicated in wrongdoing based on evidence gleaned from FBI wiretaps.
Today, the U.S. Justice Department is again investigating HPD, this time for alleged abuse of power and civil rights violations stemming from allegations that outgoing Police Chief Kealoha and his wife, city prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, framed a family member in an attempt to settle a financial dispute.
One former police officer has already pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy in U.S. District Court after admitting to taking part in the framing. And at least four other officers — all of them still with the department — have been notified they are suspects.
Other cases have also called into question the integrity of the department and the Police Commission’s ability — or willingness — to keep officers in check.
Millions of dollars have been paid out in legal settlements involving police killings, excessive use of force and racial, sexual and gender discrimination, and numerous officers have been arrested for serious crimes.
For the past three years, the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus has been trying to pass a bill that would force county police commissions to have at least some members with experience in criminal justice, civil rights and women’s equality.
“You can’t just appoint somebody who’s a pal but basically whose IQ is closer to his belt size.” — Jimmy Borges, singer and former police commissioner, in 2015
Sen. Laura Thielen, a main sponsor of the legislation, said the bill stems from HPD’s mishandling of a 2014 domestic violence case in which a sergeant was caught on surveillance video attacking his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant.
Lawmakers worried at the time that HPD and the Police Commission had failed in their respective responses to the incident. Not only was the sergeant not arrested in the assault, but the responding officers did not file any police reports.
Thielen said that while it’s important to note that the bill was born of frustration with HPD, it would apply to all county police commissions across the state.
“The feeling that I get is that the vast majority of people in Hawaii, myself included, have great respect for law enforcement and do appreciate the challenges of their positions,” Thielen said.
“But I think the world has changed and expectations that people have now about government transparency and accountability are increasing. I think there are some entities that have been slow to adapt to this change.”
There are nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and the many civilian oversight bodies meant to keep them in check can be just as varied as the communities they serve.
Matthew Barge of the Police Assessment Resource Center compared the Honolulu Police Commission to the one in Los Angeles, which is made up of five political appointees chosen by the mayor who also have authority over the chief’s job status.
While well-connected business types have served on the Los Angeles Police Commission, Barge said the agency also included a college law professor who was an advocate for the LGBTQ community.
Barge said it’s also a good idea to include members who have deep connections to the communities most affected by policing.
“In order to have credibility, the commission, like a city council, needs to be seen as representing the community,” Barge said. “The commission’s recommendations on police policy and practices will then be more influential when it’s not seen as a gang of activists or a gang of business leaders pressing their pet agenda.”
The Honolulu Police Commission consists of seven volunteers appointed by the mayor to staggered five-year terms. There are no requirements other than to be a registered city voter.
Recent alumni include Mike McCartney, Keith Amemiya and Ron Taketa, are all well known in Hawaii politics.
McCartney is a Democratic Party heavyweight and former state senator who used to head the Hawaii Tourism Authority, PBS Hawaii and the Hawaii State Teachers Association. He’s now chief of staff to Gov. David Ige.
Amemiya is the senior vice president of Island Holdings, the parent company of one of the largest insurance companies in the state, and former executive administrator of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. He’s also the campaign finance chair for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.
Taketa is the long-time head of the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, one of the largest construction trade groups in the state. The union was instrumental in getting Caldwell elected and played a key role in supporting Honolulu’s $9.5 billion rail project.
Helen Hamada was on the Police Commission from 2008 to 2016. The graphic designer used to serve on the board of directors for the Hawaii Government Employees Association, by far the biggest labor union in the state.
She said many commissioners took the job for “self serving” reasons. There weren’t many perks to being a commissioner, she said, aside from the occasional junket to the mainland or neighbor island. They also used to get badges.
But simply being on the commission brought with it a certain amount of gravitas.
“Let’s face it, the Police Commission is one of those sought-after commissions to be on,” Hamada said. “You’re exposed to the public more.”
She said she was surprised when Hannemann asked her to serve on the commission, mostly because she didn’t have any background in law enforcement. She had previously served on the Mayor’s Commission on Culture and the Arts as the “crafts” member.
She said Hannemann told her he wanted her on the commission because she wasn’t afraid to speak out. Hamada said she tried to take the job seriously, but often found herself in the minority.
On one occasion, she said she was struggling to get answers out of Kealoha about rape kits that had been destroyed before being tested. As she pressed the issue, she said another commissioner patted her on the hand as an indication to ease off.
“We’re the ones who have to answer to the public,” Hamada said. “I think more accountability is being demanded of the department, which should have been done way before.”
The current commission has a similar political flavor, but that could change as terms expire.
Eddie Flores and Cha Thompson are set to serve through the end of the year. Luella Costales, whose term ended Dec. 31, is a holdover who could be replaced at any time. The term of Marc Tilker, another long-time commissioner who was Caldwell’s first appointment in 2013, expires at the end of 2018.
None has a law enforcement background.
Costales is the director of development at Kupu, a nonprofit that teaches youth about environmental stewardship. She’s also owned her own marketing consulting firm, High Standard Hawaii. In 2014, she unsuccessfully ran for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in District 36, which includes Mililani.
Flores is the CEO of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and has been on the commission since 2010. He’s also served as the chairman of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and as director of several community foundations, including the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Filipino Community Center.
Thompson is the commission’s vice chair, and is intimately tied to Hawaii’s tourism industry. In addition to running her own entertainment company, Thompson has served as the president of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and has been a board member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
She initially served for eight years before she and Borges quit in protest. At the time she was the chairwoman. She was reappointed to the commission by former Mayor Peter Carlisle.
“I think the community at large overwhelmingly doesn’t understand much about the Police Commission.” — Commissioner Steven Levinson
Tilker, too, is a long-time commissioner who once served as chairman. He’s the president and CEO of Marathon Group, parent company of BEI Hawaii, a distributor of pesticides, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. Marathon Group also includes HT&T Truck Center, which deals in medium-sized trucks, and BEI Consulting, an IT firm.
Tilker, Thompson, Flores and Costales all failed to respond to Civil Beat interview requests.
In a 2013 interview with Civil Beat, Tilker dismissed any notion that he or his colleagues weren’t up to the task of holding HPD accountable. He said their backgrounds as civically engaged business leaders and union reps meant they wouldn’t be intimidated by someone wearing a badge, even the chief of police.
Current Chairman Max Sword has been the commission’s frontman during one of the most trying periods in HPD history. This included recently giving Kealoha a $250,000 settlement to walk away from the department.
Sword is an executive for Outrigger Enterprise Group, a major hotelier in Hawaii and throughout the Asia-Pacific region. He’s also a registered lobbyist who often meets with lawmakers.
He has served on a number of other boards and commissions, including the Judicial Selection Commission and the Honolulu City Council Reapportionment Commission. He has said that his work with the judiciary piqued his interest in law enforcement.
But when he reappointed Sword to the commission in June, Caldwell said he valued Sword’s connections to the visitor industry.
“It’s us local folks and our visitors who are impacted by the good work of the Honolulu Police Department, and I want to make sure there is that representation there,” Caldwell said. “He’s completely connected into Waikiki and the visitor industry and has a lot of experience in that area.”
Sword told Civil Beat that the Police Commission hasn’t always been upfront about the changes it’s pushed on the department over the years. But he said that as the chairman he hopes to modify the culture by having more open dialogue.
He said the department has responded to commission concerns in the past, particularly about domestic violence, by implementing new programs that increased officer training and improved response.
“It’s a matter of transparency,” Sword said. “What’s important is that people see that the department is doing something in the community and reassuring the community that the department is on its toes and not just sitting on its hands.”
The complexion of the Police Commission began to change in June when the mayor — then running for re-election — appointed Loretta Sheehan, calling her a “breath of fresh air.”
Sheehan is a former city prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney who spent much of her career investigating criminals and putting them behind bars. She now works as a private litigator for the Honolulu law firm Davis Levin Livingston.
Before her appointment, Sheehan said she viewed a spot on Police Commission as a “political plum” that brought with it a sense of status. But the job has become increasingly difficult as commissioners grapple with the circumstances surrounding the departure of Kealoha.
“I think that everybody feels that being on the Police Commission for the past five months has been no fun at all,” Sheehan said. “Honestly, it’s been a lot of work, it’s been a lot of tension, it’s been a lot of disagreement, and it’s been a lot of scrutiny by the media. No one is comfortable and nobody is happy.”
When Sheehan was approached about being a police commissioner, she said she had grave concerns about the DOJ investigation into Louis and Katherine Kealoha because the allegations seemed to undermine the integrity of Oahu’s entire criminal justice system.
Sheehan wondered why the commissioners had refused to launch their own investigation.
In fact, they continued to give Kealoha high marks in his annual evaluations despite glaring deficiencies, particularly related to officer misconduct, some of which had cost the city millions in legal fees.
“I wasn’t sure why they were so afraid to investigate the chief of police,” Sheehan said. “I felt that there must be something I don’t know, or that there must be something that I was missing. It seemed so obvious to me that we needed an activist Police Commission.”
After Sheehan was confirmed, it didn’t take long for her to turn the commission’s meeting space inside HPD headquarters into her own personal courtroom.
During one of her first meetings, she grilled Kealoha and his top deputies as if they were on a witness stand. She asked them uncomfortable questions about officers who had been arrested and lawsuits that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
She even put Kealoha on the spot about the ongoing DOJ investigation, something her colleagues had refused to do, at least during a public meeting.
Sheehan’s candor and the forcefulness with which she demanded answers shocked some of her colleagues. Most commissioners were used to receiving brief updates from the chief about traffic fatalities and the number of citations issued in city parks before retreating into executive session where they could talk in private.
Tensions bubbled over in October shortly after Caldwell announced Steven Levinson would be replacing Ron Taketa on the Honolulu Police Commission.
At the time, the mayor was running for re-election and he had been criticized by his opponents for leaving Taketa on the commission months after his term expired to score political points with the carpenters union.
Caldwell had also been attacked for being too hands off in his handling of the chief and other police reform issues. Some believed Levinson — and the prior appointment of Sheehan — represented Caldwell’s antidote.
A highly respected jurist, Levinson wrote a landmark opinion while on the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. He’s also on the board of directors for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
But in the eyes of Commissioner Cha Thompson, he was just another “legalistic person.”
On Oct. 19, state Sen. Will Espero attended a Police Commission meeting and brought some complaints.
Espero brought up a cheating scandal at the police academy. He criticized the department’s destruction of thousands of untested rape kits. And he questioned the wisdom of promoting an officer with a history of domestic violence to a top post in the department.
Most importantly, Espero, a vocal advocate of law enforcement reform efforts, wanted the commissioners to support a city charter amendment that ultimately strengthened their authority.
“Improved civilian oversight will be in the best interests of all Oahu residents and the police department itself,” Espero said.
The senator’s comments elicited an odd reaction from Thompson, who took off on a rambling tangent that seemed to touch upon both the qualifications of the new police commissioners as well as their ethnicities.
Thompson worried that with the mayor’s recent appointments — both of them lawyers and both of them white — the commission would no longer be made up of “community people.”
She even made comparisons to “lunas,” who in Hawaii history were the horseback-riding, whip-wielding plantation overseers whose job it was to keep immigrant laborers in line.
Her comments seemed to allude to Hawaii’s territorial politics that were dominated by white Republicans until the 1950s when union workers revolted and the Democratic Party came to power.
“It’s disturbing to me if we only get one kind of people,” Thompson said.
It was an odd moment that passed quickly. But to Espero the exchange indicated a rift had formed among commissioners. It also highlighted a level of defensiveness when it came to dealing with Chief Kealoha.
“You have sitting commissioners who were involved in the hiring of Chief Kealoha and it was their decision to hire him,” Espero said in a recent interview. “Unfortunately, what has happened because of the federal investigation and everything else that has happened in the last six months is that their decision is now being second-guessed.”
Levinson laughed off Thompson’s comments, saying that the two of them have gotten along “famously” in their short time together on the commission.
Levinson said the tenor of the commission has changed under Sword’s leadership. As a lobbyist, Sword seems more inclined to bring people together than to rule as an autocrat.
Instead of just hearing the chief and his staff spout off statistics about pedestrian deaths, the commissioners — and particularly Sword, Levinson and Sheehan — have been more engaged in the conversations.
They even pushed the department to respond to a recent story in Civil Beat that found HPD officers had failed to properly investigate a suspected case of child abuse at a local daycare that was owned by a colleague’s wife. That case is now under review to see if criminal charges can still be pursued.
Levinson is optimistic about the future of the Police Commission, but said he was surprised it had not included at least one lawyer until now.
Someone with a law degree might be well-suited to help in evaluating citizen complaints against officers and the subsequent investigations into those allegations, he said. A lawyer might also be useful in pushing back against city attorneys if there’s a disagreement over the interpretation of law.
He added that the “personality” of the Police Commission can change at the whim of the mayor who appoints the members.
“It’s interesting that there really is no template that I’m aware of that describes what an ideal Police Commission member would look like,” Levinson said. “Because there really aren’t any written parameters for the appointing authority to consult, resort to or evoke in making appointments, you kind of get who you get.”