If there were any lingering assumptions that the federal investigation of a former Honolulu police chief and his deputy prosecutor wife is only about a stolen mailbox, the dramatic events of Friday should dispel them for good.

The arrests by the FBI of Louis and Katherine Kealoha and their indictment on possible abuse of power and public corruption, as well as the arrests of five current or former Honolulu Police Department officers that preceded it, make clear that the inquiry is wide-ranging and has reached the highest levels of HPD and the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office.

And there may well be more to come.

HPD Police Chief Louis Kealoha sign. 7 sept 2016
Public confidence in the Honolulu Police Department is shattered. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While the Kealohas and their alleged co-conspirators will have their day in court beginning later this year, the obvious need to clean house at the scandal-tainted, morale-dampened HPD makes the work of the Honolulu Police Commission that much more momentous.

In light of recent events, the commission should halt its process of picking Kealoha’s replacement and start over.

At the very least, commissioners should seriously reconsider the appropriateness of interviewing local candidates for the job.

As assistant federal public defender Alexander Silvert, the attorney who launched the federal probe, put it: “This isn’t just one rogue officer. This is the top echelon of the police department using their powers to frame an individual. That’s simply outrageous and unacceptable.”

Four of the seven finalists come from within HPD and are current or former high-ranking HPD officers. Only two are from outside Hawaii.

The allegations raised in the federal indictment relate to actions that have been going on for years, when these four inside contenders for chief were serving closely with Kealoha and the officers who have been charged. The commission needs to thoroughly investigate their participation in or knowledge of any wrongdoing. Did they see what was going on and simply look the other way?

Questions about the suitability of one of the applicants, former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Tommy Aiu, have also recently surfaced. 

While the commission was expected to make a chief selection within the next two weeks, the new developments warrant a more careful process that will require more time. The public needs to have absolute confidence that a new chief can reform a department whose former leader is accused of using law enforcement to break the law.

Retired HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and Katherine Kealoha bedecked with lei as they exit US District Court.
Retired HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and Katherine Kealoha bedecked with lei as they exited U.S. District Court Friday following their indictment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A new search would allow the two candidates put forth as potential commissioners by Mayor Kirk Caldwell to be vetted and approved by the City Council — something that is already rightly being fast-tracked — and thus increase the seven-member commission’s voting membership from four to six.

The Honolulu Police Commission has long raised eyebrows about the way it has handled the problems with former chief Kealoha.

This is the same panel, albeit with two different members, that for months refused to acknowledge there even was a federal corruption investigation even though the grand jury’s work was being reported widely and frequently in the media.

This is the same commission that less than three years ago gave Louis Kealoha an above average rating even as the allegations of corruption and abuse of power were swirling.

On Friday, it didn’t look like the commission’s attitude had changed much. Chairman Max Sword issued what appeared to be a grudging acknowledgment of the years-long probe.

“It is the Commission’s understanding that the federal grand jury has decided that there is enough evidence of criminal conduct occurring at HPD under the leadership of Chief Kealoha to return an indictment,” Sword said in a prepared statement.

Civil Beat has already urged Sword, who has recused himself from the chief selection because he’s related by marriage to Aiu, to resign.

Sword’s lame statement Friday is yet another indication that he’s not up to the job of running the commission.

Other signs point to the need for the commission to seriously look at what’s going on in the department and how a new leader can and should bring fresh insight and practices to a police force that includes hundreds of officers who by all accounts are just trying to do their jobs and serve the public. They truly deserve the consideration.

The public needs to have absolute confidence that a new chief can reform a department whose former leader is accused of using law enforcement to break the law.

Kealoha’s close ties to the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the powerful police union, are ripe for scrutiny. While acting Chief Cary Okimoto told reporters the indictments are clearly having an effect on the rank-and-file, the head of SHOPO, Tenari Maafala, argued that there is no morale issue in the department.

And the mayor (who, oddly, was traveling out of state last week as the Kealoha crisis was elevated to a higher level) and City Council leaders say Honolulu continues to be one of the “safest large cities in the entire country” — as if that should comfort Oahu’s nearly 1 million residents.

Now is not the time for empty and questionable statements. Now is not the time for more business as usual.

Now is the time for leadership to restore trust in a troubled institution, even if it takes more time.

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