The Honolulu Police Commission on Monday embarked on a three-day process of interviewing the seven finalists for the next police chief, with a big shadow looming over the city’s law enforcement community.
The interviews got underway just three days after former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a high-ranking city prosecutor, were arrested and indicted by federal prosecutors on 20 counts of criminal conspiracy, fraud and obstruction of justice. Four current or former HPD officers were also indicted as alleged accomplices. A fifth officer has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.
The commissioners interviewed two candidates, Paul Putzulu, a former HPD deputy chief, and Thomas Aiu, a former special agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, on Monday.
The commission could be ready to announce their choice for the next chief as early as Wednesday afternoon, shortly after they wrap up the last interview.
But it’s unclear whether the commissioners will be able to settle on their choice by then, given that only four of them are available for the selection process. Their choice will have be unanimous — as any decision by the seven-member panel requires a majority vote of four.
In recent months, two commissioners have resigned, and commission Chairman Max Sword recused himself from the selection process because he’s related by marriage to Aiu.
In a morning session before the interviews, the commissioners explored some backup plans in case they can’t reach consensus.
One plan, as suggested by Commissioner Steven Levinson, would be to conduct “weighted voting” in which the next chief is chosen based on the tally of the commissioners’ scores for each finalist.
But Levinson himself wasn’t convinced by the idea.
“I have some concerns in my own mind as to whether that process would comply with the city’s governing law,” Levinson said. “At this point, my inclination is to go forward in a conventional fashion in the optimistic hope that four of us will be able to reach agreement regarding the first choice.”
Commissioner Loretta Sheehan said she shared Levinson’s optimism.
“As I thought about it, it occurred to me that in this country juries do this every single day — 12 people reaching a unanimous decision about guilt or innocence,” Sheehan said. “And I think four of us can do this — I really do.”
But the Honolulu City Council appears to be taking no chances and is moving forward on another plan that would allow Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s two recent nominees for the commission to take part in the selection process.
The nominees — Karen Chang, a former executive at Charles Schwab and American Express, and Jerry Gibson, the area vice president of Hilton Hotels and Resorts — will first have to be confirmed by the council, a process that typically takes several weeks.
Still, Commissioner Eddie Flores stressed the urgent need to restore HPD’s damaged reputation and pressed fellow commissioners for a quick decision.
“I think it’s very critical for us right now to pick the police chief as soon as possible,” Flores said.
But assistant federal public defender Alexander Silvert told Civil Beat that the commission shouldn’t make a hasty decision.
He argued that some of the longtime commissioners — those who selected Kealoha for the top job eight years ago, gave him excellent marks throughout his tenure and refused to launch any investigation despite allegations of corruption — have credibility issues.
“They have shown through their negligence and refusal to actually do their work that they are not qualified to be involved in the selection of a new chief,” Silvert said. “And they should, for the good of the community, resign now.”
Silvert represents Gerard Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s uncle who allegedly was framed for the purported theft of the Kealoha’s mailbox. He said the commission should start over from the beginning.
“All these people are saying, ‘Look, we got to pick somebody, we’ve got to pick somebody — because we don’t have anybody and we’ve got to move forward.’ No, we need to get this right. However long it takes, we need to get it right,” Silvert said.
But Sheehan said all commissioners taking part in the selection process realize the gravity of the situation.
“I mean, everybody on the commission always took it really seriously, but the indictment adds a new dimension of concern to our interviews, to our questions, to thoroughness of our background checks, to the effort that we put into it,” Sheehan said.
“All commissioners now understand that we have to function in a different way and be very careful about who the next chief will be.”
Levinson pointed out that the indictment was expected for a long time.
“Even before the indictment was returned, I think the commission had become acutely aware of the need to do everything we can possibly do to elect someone who is as close to being beyond reproach as possible,” Levinson said.
“So, we’re going to be looking very, very closely at the records of all of the finalists.”