A veteran police officer says he put his career on the line last week when he testified publicly before the city Police Commission about alleged corruption in the Honolulu Police Department.
Denny Santiago told the commission, which is the sole independent oversight body for HPD, that it needed to address what he described as a long-standing history of retaliation against those who speak out about wrongdoing within the ranks.
“There is some pretty screwed up stuff going on in the police department,” Santiago said. “We need you guys to help us out. People are taking care of their friends.”
Santiago’s comments, posted online by Civil Beat over the weekend, went viral on Facebook and Twitter, getting hundreds of thousands of views in Hawaii and elsewhere.
His message about alleged cover-ups and corruption within the Honolulu Police Department seemed to resonate with readers. Here’s a sampling:
Santiago’s comments smashed through the “Blue Wall of Silence,” a unwritten code among those in law enforcement that you don’t rat out your fellow officers.
Breaking that code can alienate outspoken officers from their peers, even if what they’re reporting is egregious and criminal.
Santiago said he knew this was a risk, but decided to take it anyway.
“Right here and today, this is it for my career,” he said. There’s people in the police department who are going to hate me for this. But I’m tired of it. I’m sick of it.”
But who is Denny Santiago? And what was he complaining about?
Santiago is a corporal who used to work in the traffic division. He got his start with HPD in 1996 and is now assigned to District 7, which covers East Honolulu from Manoa Valley and Moiliili to Hawaii Kai and the Kalama Valley.
He’s a decorated officer, who has received some of HPD’s highest honors.
In 2004, Santiago was awarded a certificate of merit for his part in responding to a vehicle collision on Farrington Highway that took the life of a police officer and a 10-year-old girl.
“Because of the lack of action inside the department, I was shocked that people outside would be so supportive.” — Office Denny Santiago
Santiago and others were recognized at the time for their efforts in pulling victims from burning brush that had ignited after the accident.
He was honored again for his heroism in 2011 after he shot a gunman who had been firing a weapon in the Ala Moana area during a fight. Santiago received a Warrior Silver Medal of Valor, the department’s second-highest award.
Santiago told the commissioners that he was worried about the ongoing search for a new police chief for the department, especially as the U.S. Justice Department continues its probe into alleged corruption and abuse of power.
That case stems from allegations that former police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, a city prosecutor, worked with several officers to frame a family member for the theft of their mailbox to gain the upper hand in a bitter legal fight over money.
Santiago has a personal tie to the case. When former officer Niall Silva pleaded guilty to conspiracy for taking part in the frame job, Santiago was in the courtroom to support Silva, who has agreed to work with prosecutors.
“You guys gotta ask harder questions,” Santiago told the commissioners. “The people applying for chief, were they involved in the mailbox case? If they weren’t, did they know about it? Did they do anything about it afterwards when things started to come out?
“Do you want that same person who was there letting this stuff happen become the next chief?”
When contacted by Civil Beat on Monday, Santiago said he was surprised with the response his comments to the commission received on social media.
He said he was still worried about his future with the department, especially since he has two pending complaints against his colleagues before the internal affairs division and human resources.
“Because of the lack of action inside the department, I was shocked that people outside would be so supportive,” Santiago said. “I didn’t think anybody would pay much attention being that it’s just me speaking out.”
Santiago said he’s taken his concerns about the department to the FBI, although he did not want to discuss the specifics of what he said.
He also didn’t want to talk about his pending complaints within HPD, saying that he signed a confidentiality clause when he filed the complaints.
In his testimony to the commission he generally described his complaints as connected to retaliation, false arrests, illegal searches and seizures and falsifying police reports.
He also accused HPD of using administrative investigations as a means of silencing officers.
Acting Police Chief Cary Okimoto declined to be interviewed about Santiago’s concerns. Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for HPD, said she could not comment on any ongoing investigations.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.