Susan Ballard kicked off her first Honolulu Police Commission meeting Wednesday like any new CEO might — with a PowerPoint presentation.
Ballard, who was appointed as Honolulu police chief last month, outlined her goals for the coming weeks, months and years to the commission, which is her de facto boss.
She dimmed the lights and explained that her top priority is rebuilding community trust in the Honolulu Police Department, the nation’s 20th-largest.
Ballard called her plan, “A New Beginning,” and said that it will focus on the community and HPD working together.
“It’s got to be the two of us, not one or the other can do it,” Ballard said. “We’re going back to the basics. We’re serving and protecting with aloha.”
Ballard comes into the top spot at HPD during a time of tremendous turmoil for the department.
Former police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, were recently indicted by the U.S. Justice Department on numerous criminal charges related to conspiracy, bank fraud and obstruction of justice.
Four HPD officers were included in the indictment and a fifth has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Meanwhile, the federal grand jury investigation continues.
All five of the indicted officers were part of a covert division within the department called the Criminal Intelligence Unit, which is made up of individuals hand-picked by the chief.
The unit has a long history of misconduct dating back to the 1970s when it was created in response to growing organized crime and a spate of gangland slayings.
On Wednesday, Ballard described the CIU as the “elephant in the room” and said she’s already begun the process of revamping the unit to ensure that it doesn’t encounter future problems.
She did say, however, that the CIU is a “necessary unit.”
“There will be a new commander beginning on Dec. 1 and that individual will be taking a look at the entire operation and making recommendations,” Ballard said.
The chief outlined a number of goals, some related to crime-fighting and others to boosting the department’s technological capabilities.
Ballard said she wants to focus on cybercrime, domestic violence and elder abuse.
She also wants to rebuild the department’s juvenile services division and find a better way to address homelessness.
The chief supports the use of body cameras and vehicle-mounted dash cams, but she said that getting the funding for that will be difficult considering the equipment and storage will take millions of dollars that aren’t already included in HPD’s $280 million budget.
She said she’s also looking to fill nearly 200 vacancies for uniformed officers. One option she’s exploring to make that easier is reducing the length of the hiring and recruitment process from one year to six or seven months.
“This is a great job,” Ballard said, turning toward the TV cameras in the room. “This is a perfect time for you to come and join.”
She said her hope is to shift the departmental attitude and bolster ethics training among the rank and file in light of the many scandals at HPD over the years.
Ballard said she would perform much of the “ethics and integrity” training herself with her command staff, who then will pass it down the ranks.
She also wants to cut down on the length of time it takes for internal affairs investigations to be completed, noting that sometimes it can take as long as two years.
Ballard said she will leave decisions about how best to police the community to individual patrol districts, noting that the needs of Waianae are different than Kailua.
Her hope is to also promote a “guardian mentality” among the officers to reduce aggression.
“Police work is no longer run, gun, shoot ‘em up,” Ballard said.
She said she also wants to open up the department to more community dialogue and plans to eventually host town hall meetings.
“I want to make sure I’m available to the public as much as I can be,” Ballard said.
Overall, the chief’s tone with the commission came across as far different than her predecessors.
Previous chiefs would provide the commission with basic statistics on pedestrian deaths and the citations issued for minor infractions, such as park closure violations.
Commissioner Loretta Sheehan noted those types of updates when she asked Ballard how she might approach the commission in the future.
“Do you see your dialogue with us changing at all?” Sheehan asked.
“Absolutely,” Ballard said.
“My question to the commissioners is what do you want to hear from me,” she added. “I want to have a dialogue. I want to have a discussion. I want to know where you folks are coming from because you’re representing the community.”
Ballard’s straight talk with the Police Commission wasn’t the only sign that a new era may be underway in Hawaii law enforcement.
The commissioners had a lively debate with city attorneys, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s top lawyer, Donna Leong, about when police officers should get taxpayer-funded legal counsel and whether those discussions should take place in private.
Leong argued that the public should be barred from listening in if the officers request a closed-door hearing.
She also said the commission should have a stricter view of who’s entitled to legal fees when accused in a lawsuit or criminal complaint of misconduct in the performance of their duties.
But the commissioners, led by Sheehan, a former assistant U.S. attorney, and Steve Levinson, a former associate justice with the Hawaii Supreme Court, disagreed.
They even decided to turn back on a previous decision not to provide legal counsel to one of the alleged co-conspirators in the Kealoha indictment.
Officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen is a central figure in the alleged conspiracy to frame Gerard Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, for the theft of her mailbox.
Puana has sued Nguyen as well as several others, including the Kealohas, in a federal lawsuit.
The commission initially denied taxpayer-funded legal counsel to Nguyen, with commissioners Sheehan and Levinson voting that he should get it.
Nguyen’s attorney appealed the ruling to state court recently, saying that the commission erred in its legal reasoning.
On Wednesday, the commission agreed it had made the wrong decision and told the city’s attorneys to “confess error” in the decision and not fight Nguyen’s appeal.