The Honolulu Police Commission whittled its list of 34 police chief candidates to nine Wednesday after ranking their scores from a written exam that was administered by an independent contractor helping evaluate the applicants.

The remaining candidates will now have to undergo a second round of testing, called an “assessment center,” in which they will face a new barrage of questions and undergo a psychological examination to ensure they’re fit for duty.

Police Commission Chairman Max Sword said that once the assessment center is completed, the commission will choose finalists whose names will be revealed to the public in early October.

The Honolulu Police Commission has a big decision to make on who will be the next chief. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

At this point, the commissioners say they do not know the identities of the candidates.

Commission officials revealed that of the 34 applicants only 24 showed up to take the written exam, which was administered in Honolulu on Saturday, Aug. 26. It’s unclear how many of the applicants traveled from the mainland to take the test.

The city’s consultant, the Pennsylvania-based human resources firm EB Jacobs, developed its exam and the scoring, in part, based on the input of local stakeholders.

Executive Officer Dan Lawrence said the stakeholders who were consulted included several retired HPD officers, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his managing director, the American Civil Liberties Union and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

In all, there were eight questions, six of which required narrative responses related to general policing topics, such as preparedness and community relations.

The answers were scored by four people with backgrounds in law enforcement who were selected by EB Jacobs. Although the consultants didn’t reveal their names, they said that all four are former police chiefs, three of whom were from Pennsylvania and the fourth having worked in Hawaii.

All four are middle-aged white males.

The lack of diversity concerned at least two of the commissioners, Loretta Sheehan and Luella Costales. They also wanted to know more about the test and what specific questions were asked because they had not yet seen a copy of the exam or the responses.

All the commissioners had to rely upon to make their decision was a spreadsheet of numbers that showed how the candidates — who were assigned their own unique identifier to keep them anonymous — stacked up in various categories.

Sheehan in particular felt uncomfortable about making a decision with so little to go on.

“I appreciate that there’s a need for action, however, I feel like I’m voting on something without too much information,” she said. “I don’t know what the test looks like, I don’t know how it was scored, I don’t know anything about our police experts who work in rural Pennsylvania.”

The HPD has been without a permanent police chief since January, when Louis Kealoha abruptly retired.

Commissioner Steven Levinson noted the length of the selection process when he pushed for making a decision Wednesday, saying that he had full trust in the consultant’s methodology.

“I sure as hell don’t want to have to wait until the next meeting to take additional substantive action,” Levinson said. “Otherwise, we’ll just fall farther and farther behind the eight ball.”

After the meeting, Sheehan said she still worries about the lack of diversity among the assessors.

“It raised my concerns as to the inherent bias that each of us has,” Sheehan said. “The representation was made by the consultants that the assessors were a diverse group and when we inquired about their diversity, it turned out they’re all older white males who have experience on police forces. That’s not diverse.

“So that made me want to read the raw material myself because perhaps I would disagree with them on how to evaluate the answers on the test.”

Sword said after the meeting that he wasn’t too concerned about the assessors’ backgrounds. He said the next round of testing will including input from several “local law enforcement types.”

“It’ll be a good cross-section,” he said, noting that the second phase of testing will be more thorough.

Whoever is selected as Honolulu’s next police chief will take over a department in turmoil.

Kealoha left under suspicion after he was named as a target of an ongoing federal corruption investigation stemming from allegations that he and his wife, Katherine, who is a city prosecutor, framed a family member along with the help of several other Honolulu police officers.

That’s not the only controversy. The department has been dogged by allegations that it doesn’t take domestic violence seriously, especially when the alleged perpetrator is a police officer. 

Many other officers have been arrested for serious crimes in recent years, too, raising concerns that oversight and accountability are lacking within the department.

In other action, Levinson encouraged HPD officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen to appeal a recent commission decision to deny him taxpayer-funded legal counsel in a lawsuit related to the ongoing federal investigation into the Kealohas.

Levinson, who’s a former associate justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, said the city attorneys have long-erred in their legal analysis when it comes to hiring lawyers to defend officers accused of wrongdoing, a benefit afforded to them under state law.

He also questioned the role of the city’s Department of Corporation Counsel in advising the commission on such decisions, noting that it has likely abused the attorney-client privilege to shield its legal analysis from public view.

“I very much hope that Officer Nguyen appeals this,” Levinson said, “because I want it to go to the Supreme Court.”

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