The problems at the Honolulu Police Commission are getting worse, not better.

It became clear last week that chairman Max Sword and three commissioners who continue to follow his lead either don’t understand fundamental tenets of the U.S. and Hawaii constitutions or are blatantly ignoring them.

The commission is also aided and abetted by the city’s own lawyers, the Department of Corporation Counsel, which one would presume would understand the law. Instead, it appears complicit in the commission’s ignorance and ineptitude.

Last week’s 4-2 decision — led by Sword, a hotel lobbyist — to block the public from a hearing on whether city taxpayers should pay for the legal counsel of two officers is just the latest unfortunate issue with a Police Commission that cries out for independence, credibility and intelligence.

Sword and his followers incredibly ignored the legal analysis of the commission’s two members who are attorneys, one a former Supreme Court justice and the other a former federal prosecutor. Commissioners Steven Levinson and Loretta Sheehan cited years of legal precedence that showed Sword was just flat out wrong in trying to keep the public out of the hearing.

“Democracies die behind closed doors,” Levinson told his fellow commissioners, quoting a previous federal court ruling. “When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”

Levinson went on to quote extensively from two federal cases that made strong arguments for doing the public’s business in public and not behind closed doors as the Police Commission has long preferred. He said there is no justification for closing the hearings on whether the taxpayers should pay for attorneys for two officers.

The public’s interest in how the Police Commission operates has been growing rapidly in the last few years. Questions are being raised about police misconduct and other practices by the Honolulu Police Department — as well as policing generally nationwide — that cry out for transparent police oversight.

More recently, Honolulu’s former police chief, Louis Kealoha and his deputy prosecutor wife, Katherine, have been at the center of a federal Justice Department investigation into corruption and abuse of power. Kealoha ultimately was forced to retire, but this is the same Police Commission that agreed to pay him an extra $250,000 on his way out the door, even though he was leaving under a dark cloud.

The two officers who now want us to pay their legal bills are being sued for allegations that landed them in the middle of that federal probe as well. So we have a strong interest in being able to watch over how the commission acts.

The Police Commission is struggling to find a replacement for Kealoha who, by the way, they had rated as “exceeding expectations” at his last job review, also done behind closed doors.

And earlier this year, it was Sword who made the absurd recommendation that a reality TV star, Beth Chapman — wife of Duane “Dog” Chapman of “Dog The Bounty Hunter” — help search for a new chief.

If ever there was a public body that needed public scrutiny it is this one. Law enforcement, with its extraordinary power over ordinary citizens, must be held to higher standards and accountability than any other government entity.

And still Sword and three fellow commissioners voted to shut the public out. The decision so outraged Levinson and Sheehan, who were appointed relatively recently by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to shake up the panel, that they threatened to walk out of any closed hearings.

Caldwell deserves credit for naming Levinson and Sheehan to the Police Commission. He made a mistake, however, when he reappointed Sword, who has been on the panel since 2011 and was reappointed and then named chair earlier this year.

Now, Caldwell has the perfect opportunity to bring the seven-member Police Commission the professionalism it and the public deserves. There is one unfilled position, created when Marc Tilker left a few months ago. And another commissioner, Luella Costales, is still serving even though her term expired in December.

Caldwell should move quickly to fill these two spots with independent thinkers of the caliber and integrity of Sheehan and Levinson. Time is of the essence since the commission is already searching for a new police chief and is still playing a role in sorting out the Kealoha mess that’s now in the hands of the FBI.

Honolulu deserves a police commission that will work to restore public trust in a police department that is the 20th largest in the country. The mayor can and should lead the way in that important mission.

How much do you value our journalism?

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.


About the Author