The Honolulu Police Commission is short of members at the very same time it must select a new chief to run the scandal-plagued police department.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell can’t seem to find candidates to fill the two vacancies on the seven-member board. And his office says the media is partly responsible.
While explaining that the mayor “is actively searching for qualified candidates,” Communications Director Jesse Broder Van Dyke said, “A number of people have said no, and some have cited the intense media coverage.”
As a member of said media, I have some suggestions to help find commissioners, advice that comes from some of the commissioners themselves.
But first, let me acknowledge that there is no question the media have been paying close attention to the commission’s work. Civil Beat alone has written dozens of stories just over the past year or so.
And for good reason.
Caldwell was forced to find replacements last year for commissioners Helen Hamada and Ron Taketa. The mayor picked Loretta Sheehan and Steven Levinson while reappointing Max Sword, who was then elected to replace Taketa as chair.
Former Police Chief Boisse Correa said at the time that the Police Commission was doing “a bum job.” He hoped all members would be replaced.
Correa may get his wish. Two commissioners — Marc Tilker and Luella Costales — resigned this year, and Caldwell is scrambling for replacements.
And the terms of commissioners Cha Thompson and Eddie Flores Jr. expire at the end of this year.
Why would anybody want to re-up after what the commission has been through? In addition to the sluggish process of replacing former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha, its work has included approving a controversial $250,000 cash payment for Kealoha and public feuds over approving taxpayer-funded legal counsel for two officers.
I called all five sitting commissioners and three former members. One was not feeling well, another declined to comment and three did not return my calls.
But Sheehan and Levinson, the two most outspoken commissioners, shared their thoughts about the search for new colleagues. So did Costales, a commissioner until just last month.
Here’s what they had to say about the search, and about the unpaid job of being a police commissioner.
Levinson, a former associate justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, has not been bothered by media scrutiny of the Police Commission. He believes that the media is just doing its job.
But he does agree that it’s been challenging for Caldwell to find suitable commissioners.
“I have gotten the impression that the mayor is having difficulty getting ‘yeses’ out of some people that he has asked,” Levinson said. “I don’t know who those people are. But I simply don’t believe that he couldn’t fill the vacancies with highly qualified people if he wanted to.”
Levinson said he recommended a particular person to the mayor, but Caldwell rejected the suggestion “out of hand.”
“I continue to be baffled,” Levinson said.
“I simply don’t believe that he couldn’t fill the vacancies with highly qualified people if he wanted to.” — Steven Levinson, referring to Mayor Kirk Caldwell
Levinson reminded me that the Honolulu Police Commission is the oldest continually operating civilian oversight body of a police department in the nation.
“It serves a critical function, it is an important entity, and the work that it does is both interesting and stimulating,” he said.
Levinson said he prefers to have as many commissioners as possible be familiar with the law, whether they are lawyers or not.
“But that does not seem to be the pattern over the years,” he said. “I think the commission would be strengthened if it has some more lawyers.”
That way, said Levinson, the commissioners wouldn’t have to depend as much on the city’s attorneys, known as the Corporation Counsel.
“In my opinion, it gives good advice sometimes and bad advice sometimes, and the lay members of the commission seem to have difficulty making the distinction between good and bad advice,” he said.
Serving on the commission takes a lot of time, but Levinson feels things will calm down considerably once a new chief is selected. Still, he said it’s easier for retired people like himself to serve.
The commission currently has only four voting members for the chief selection — Sword has recused himself because one of the seven finalists is related to his wife — and would have to vote unanimously to hire someone.
At next week’s meeting, Levinson plans to propose a “backup mode” of voting for a chief candidate.
Under the plan, there would be two ballots: one for commissioners to name their top choice, the other to rank all seven candidates. If the four commissioners can’t all agree on a top pick, the rankings would be tabulated to see who was most preferred among the group.
Sheehan said the media coverage has been intense, but she’s fine with that.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, emphasizing that she was speaking only for herself and not the commission. “It’s been fantastic, it’s been wonderful. It has connected the people with those in power. The media has made the voices of ordinary people heard, and up until now no one has had to pay attention to ordinary people.”
Sheehan admits that being on television and in the newspapers is difficult.
“It is stressful not knowing if you are going to make a misstep, and then have people criticize you,” she explained. “But if that is going to keep you from doing your job, don’t seek a high-profile job.”
“We should not be afraid to demand the best of our public servants.” — Loretta Sheehan
If a would-be commissioner is motivated to represent average folks, said Sheehan, “then you are going to do just fine. You can go in there, do your best, gather information as best as you can to make the best decision you can. That is my philosophy.”
A former prosecutor, Sheehan agrees with Levinson that the spotlight on the commission’s work will eventually fade. She also agrees that a legal background “is very helpful,” as is a background in law enforcement.
Mostly, she said, she wants to work with commissioners who aren’t afraid to speak out.
“I want to work with people who are not afraid to say, ‘Why is this the way we are doing something? Can we do better?’” she said. “We should not be afraid to demand the best of our public servants. That’s what I am really looking for.”
Asked why Caldwell is having such trouble finding commissioners, Sheehan said the mayor has not opened up the process to anyone who wants to apply.
“I don’t know how the mayor is processing the search, but my impression is that he is approaching people he sees as desirable candidates and being unsuccessful in getting commissioners,” she said.
Caldwell’s communications team did not respond to an inquiry Thursday about the mayor’s search process.
The Police Commission is not expected to vote on the new chief until the end of October, although a new commissioner would require City Council approval.
Costales, who resigned last month, said she never felt there was too much media attention.
“You are probably asking the wrong person, because I did not get any media attention until I resigned,” she said with a laugh.
She complained that there was not enough diversity among members of a panel that scored the written exams given to the police chief candidates.
There were no women on the panel, for example, and all four members had law enforcement backgrounds.
“For me diversity is a huge issue,” she said. “It is something we really need to address in our community, and to rush things through and not take an extra month longer, it was something that I could not continue with.”
Costales wishes the commission itself was more diverse. For instance, she’d like to see more commissioners with a background working for nonprofits.
She works for Kupu, which offers internship possibilities for Hawaii youths and in the Pacific region.
Costales grew up in south-central Los Angeles.
“I have been in a jail cell with family members who were on the wrong side of decisions made by attorneys and judges,” she said. “So, again, it’s all part of the discussion. The more diversity, the better.”
Commissioner Flores runs a restaurant chain, Thompson owns an entertainment business and Sword is a lobbyist for Outrigger Hotels and Resorts.
“A business owner is going to have a different perspective than someone who works more in the community,” said Costales.
As hard as it is to find new commissioners, it also appears to be difficult to get rid of a commissioner.
Levinson said he could not find any reference to firing a commissioner in the commission’s own rules, and very little in the Revised Charter of the City and County of Honolulu.
A call to Corporation Counsel asking whether the mayor has the authority to remove a commissioner was not returned.
For now, though, the focus is on finding good commissioners. Please keep at it, Mr. Mayor.