Union boss Tenari Maafala doesn’t want an outsider running the Honolulu Police Department.
Maafala is the outspoken president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and a vocal advocate of hiring a new chief from within the ranks despite the many scandals that have gripped HPD in recent years, some of which have led to major lawsuits involving use of force, racial discrimination and other civil rights violations.
In fact, Maafala is actively opposing state legislation that would allow HPD — or any police department for that matter — to hire a chief who lives outside of Hawaii.
Current law doesn’t allow state or local agencies — aside from the University of Hawaii — to hire high-ranking, politically appointed officials, such as department heads or police chiefs, unless they’ve been a resident of the Aloha State for at least a year.
The Honolulu Police Commission wants to change that, however, and is pressing the Legislature to lift the out-of-state hiring ban so that it can consider hiring mainland candidates to replace retired HPD chief Louis Kealoha, who was forced out in February after he was named as a target in a U.S. Justice Department corruption probe.
Police Commission Chairman Max Sword, who works as a lobbyist for Hawaii’s tourism industry, says the legislation is moving despite SHOPO’s concerns. He also said the commission has already received at least 30 applications, some of which are from out-of-state.
“We want to, first of all, make a wide net,” Sword said. “And secondly, I always believed that when you put that kind of limit on the search you’re lowering the bar in terms of the quality of the applications. I want the local guys to step up their game.”
Maafala has said that it would be a mistake for the police commission to hire anyone from outside of HPD because that person wouldn’t understand the culture of the department or the complexities of life in Hawaii.
Maafala did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for an interview.
But in written testimony to the Legislature, he said Honolulu has a long history of hiring “excellent chiefs” from within the department, some of whom he listed by name, including Frances Keala, Douglas Gibb, Michael Nakamura and Lee Donahue.
“Authorizing applicants that have not been residents for one year creates a steep learning curve of Hawaii’s culture, and also of Honolulu’s policing needs and strengths,” Maafala said in his testimony. “It takes time to build working relationships with other departments, agencies, and to create relationships with community groups.”
He added that any chief who was not from HPD would struggle to understand the “strengths and weaknesses” of individual officers as well as the inner workings of the department.
Maafala did not specifically mention Kealoha in his testimony, but the union president has been one of the chief’s staunchest supporters, from outwardly praising his appointment in 2009 to publicly defending him as calls for his ouster increased.
In a Feb. 28 interview with television news outlet KHON — which also happened to be Kealoha’s last day on the job before his retirement took effect — Maafala further reiterated his stance that HPD’s next chief should maintain internal continuity and “understand the culture.”
“The aloha spirit here is strong,” he said. “We want to treat our community with the aloha spirit. That’s the foundation of the department, serving and protecting with aloha.”
The last time Honolulu hired a police chief from outside of the Aloha State was in 1932. Since then, HPD has never hired a police chief from outside the department. But there’s also been little turnover.
Numerous studies over the years have found that the typical tenure for a police chief, especially of a large department such as HPD — the 20th largest in the country with nearly 2,000 sworn officers — is less than five years.
Kealoha is one of the longest serving chiefs, having been in the position for just over seven years. Michael Nakamura, who was chief from 1990 to 1997, had a similar stint in office. The last chief to serve longer was Francis Keala, who was chief from 1969 to 1983.
Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan is in favor of expanding the department’s horizons, at least when it comes to searching for a new chief. Like Sword, she doesn’t want to limit her options to just those individuals who already work in HPD or other departments in Hawaii.
“I can understand how SHOPO would be interested in job security,” Sheehan said. “However, we should be looking for the most qualified person. If the most qualified person for the job comes from New Mexico, for example, so be it.”
Sheehan, who is a former city prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, also said she’s worried about picking a candidate from HPD who might be caught up in the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into Kealoha. That criminal probe also includes allegations of wrongdoing not only by Kealoha’s wife, Katherine, who is a city prosecutor, but also of several other officers within the department, some of whom have already been told they might be suspects.
Concerns have already been raised about Acting Police Chief Cary Okimoto, who rose through the ranks quickly under Kealoha. Okimoto is closely tied to some of the allegations being explored by federal investigators that have already caused one former HPD officer to plead guilty to felony conspiracy. The acting chief has also been called to testify before the grand jury, although he won’t say what was discussed.
And while it’s still not known whether Okimoto is vying for the chief job, questions remain about just how deep the alleged corruption goes.
“It would be terrible to select a person to be the next chief of police only to find out that he or she is a co-conspirator,” Sheehan said. “Each applicant should be freely questioned as to his or her involvement with the federal investigation, what information they’ve provided and what they know. They don’t have to tell us, and that’s certainly their right. But that should go into the equation of whether that person is an appropriate selection at this time.”
The Honolulu Police Commission placed advertisements for the chief job on the city’s website and in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The commission also placed an ad on the online job board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which this week listed nearly 40 openings from across the country.
But experts in police practices and recruiting say this isn’t necessarily the best way to find the perfect candidate for a department, especially one as large as HPD.
Chuck Wexler is the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which conducts independent research into issues such as use of force, the impacts of community policing, and crime reduction. His agency also offers headhunting services to cities and counties looking for a new law enforcement leader.
Wexler said that for a department like HPD to find the best candidate it’s important for city administrators and commissioners to actively recruit from within other police agencies. They can’t simply wait for good candidates to apply.
“You have to go after people who are really happy in their job,” Wexler said. “If you’re trying to hire the next CEO of General Motors, you wouldn’t just put an ad in the paper and wait for people to submit their names.”
When selecting a new chief, he said it’s important to focus on the issues that are important to both the community and the department.
For instance, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Wexler said a lot of police agencies were concerned about homeland security issues. In the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis the priorities shifted toward people who knew how to stretch a dollar.
Today, many departments are responding to increasing community tensions, particularly in black communities, that have led to civil unrest. The focus now, Wexler said, is on building community trust, increasing transparency and de-escalation strategies.
“The goal should be to identify the best person who is going to take the police department forward,” Wexler said. “It starts with saying, ‘Where is the department now and where does it want to go in the future?’”
Whether a new police chief should come from within the department or from another jurisdiction out of the state, however, is a matter of debate.
Darrel Stephens is a long-time police executive who spent nearly nine years as the head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which has about 1,800 sworn officers. He’s now the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which, like PERF, helps conduct research and drive policy on modern policing in metropolitan areas.
“If you’re trying to hire the next CEO of General Motors, you wouldn’t just put an ad in the paper and wait for people to submit their names.” — Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF
Stephens said the circumstances surrounding Kealoha’s departure from HPD are unfortunate, but also rare. It’s not often that the head of a major police organization, such as HPD, sees its chief depart under suspicion of public corruption and widespread abuse of power.
“It hardly ever happens so it is a shame,” Stephens said. “I know the chief and I was very surprised to see all of that. My impressions have always been good.”
When scandals erupt and police chiefs depart, Stephens admits that cities will usually look outside the ranks for new blood. While this can be beneficial, he said that it can also prove to be a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the department and the community.
Knowing the people and the players comes naturally for an insider, Stephens said, which on the surface is a plus. But sometimes it’s better for a new chief not to have established relationships within a department so as to best evaluate the staff and develop new approaches.
“There’s no hard and fast answers to any of these questions,” Stephens said. “Depending on the circumstances there are advantages to having somebody from the outside and there are advantages to having someone from the inside.”
Honolulu’s next police chief likely won’t be named until July or August. But Kenneth Lawson, the co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project at the University of Hawaii law school, said the commissioners need to understand the gravity of that decision.
Lawson himself has seen first-hand the effects of a city taking police reform seriously. As an attorney in Cincinnati, he represented the mother of Timothy Thomas, a young black man who was gunned down by police in 2001 and whose death sparked protests throughout the city.
Cincinnati eventually entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, which Lawson helped negotiate, to change the city’s policing practices, particularly in minority communities, that have since become an example for other departments across the country.
Lawson said that officials here should be skeptical of SHOPO’s desire to keep the status quo at HPD. Police unions are often in close proximity to scandal, Lawson said, whether it’s protecting an officer who uses excessive force or fighting for the reinstatement of a someone who was caught lying and falsifying records.
“The union has its own interests in mind and that is the protection of its members,” Lawson said. “The police union wants the leaders from within the ranks to become the next chief because at some point those leaders were once union members. It’s a way of avoiding someone else coming in and cleaning house.”
“You have the chance to rebuild. Don’t you want the best person available?” — Kenneth Lawson, Hawaii Innocence Project
But Lawson said citizens should be wary, too, of the efforts put forth by the police commissioners to seek out candidates to take over the department, and whether they are truly looking out for the well-being of the community.
It’s not uncommon for struggling departments to seek an outsider to help spur a culture change, especially one plagued by corruption. For example, both San Francisco and Oakland — two departments facing their own sets of scandals — hired new police chiefs this year from outside the ranks in an attempt to send a message that the cities were taking reform efforts seriously.
Bringing someone from the outside might be just what Honolulu needs, Lawson said.
“You have the chance to rebuild,” Lawson said. “Don’t you want the best person available?”