- Special Projects
It didn’t take long for Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard to receive kudos from an unexpected source — the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
On Feb. 2, Ballard held a press conference to condemn the alleged actions of four officers who were accused of forcing a man to lick a urinal inside a public restroom.
Ballard stripped the officers of their police powers while the department investigated the case.
But she also sent the case to the FBI for review.
The swift response and stern words impressed the ACLU, which took to social media to praise the new leader of the Honolulu Police Department.
If it wasn’t clear before, it was clear then. The department was headed in a new direction.
“I’m the leader and that’s where I need to be I need to be — out front,” Ballard said during a recent interview with Civil Beat at HPD headquarters.
“If there are any hard questions I should be the one that takes them not the officers. It should be me. I’m responsible for everything that happens in the police department.”
A 32-year veteran of the department, Ballard was sworn in last fall as HPD was buffeted by scandal. Her predecessor, Louis Kealoha, had just been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department along with his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, on a litany of charges, including conspiracy, bank fraud and obstruction.
Four other Honolulu police officers — all of them part of an elite unit hand-picked by the chief — were also named as co-conspirators in the indictment. A fifth officer has already pleaded guilty to taking part in the conspiracy.
A central allegation was that the officers worked to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for the theft of the couple’s mailbox to help the Kealohas gain the upper hand in a family fight over money.
Ballard understands that a part of her job as chief includes managing the fallout from the Justice Department’s investigation as well as rebuilding community trust.
But the new chief — who is the first woman to hold the job in the department’s 86-year history — has a lot more she’d like to accomplish in the coming year.
And she wants to be held accountable.
In the nearly four months she’s been chief, Ballard has worked with the Honolulu Police Commission — which has the sole authority to hire or fire a chief — to develop a new way of evaluating her performance using specific metrics.
She gave the commission a list of goals she hopes to achieve in 2018 that touch on everything from improving crime-fighting on Hawaii’s most populous island to implementing new technologies, such as virtual reality, to bring the department further into the 21st Century.
Among the new initiatives are building a cybercrimes unit and expanding investigations into elder abuse and financial fraud.
Ballard is also moving to bring back the department’s Juvenile Services Division, which Louis Kealoha dismantled while he was chief.
“I’m the leader and that’s where I need to be I need to be — out front.” — HPD Chief Susan Ballard
She champions the use of body-worn cameras, and is hoping to have all patrol officers and traffic cops outfitted with the technology by the fall of 2019. She also wants to start installing dashboard cameras on city-owned patrol vehicles.
With more than 200 vacancies for officers in the department, Ballard said she plans to reduce the hiring process from a year to seven months.
She’s also looking for ways to decrease caseloads and increase the amount of time officers spend on the street and is moving to implement a program called “alternate call servicing” where minor crimes with no apparent suspect can be handled over the phone.
An example, she said, would be if a tourist’s property is lost or stolen and they just need a report filed for insurance purposes.
While many of these initiatives have yet to mature, Ballard has been actively reorganizing the department to find efficiencies and improve services.
“We’re going back to basics,” Ballard said. “It’s like anything. When you learn football you have to learn the basics before you can build and go forward. We need to do that first.”
In December, Ballard rattled the state police union when she reassigned its president, Tenari Maafala, from his long-held position in the Peer Support Unit to a midnight patrol shift in Waikiki.
She described the move as a way of refocusing the unit, which provides support and counseling services to officers and their families, to its core values.
While the Peer Support Unit had started off as a volunteer program, Ballard said it appeared to have lost its way in recent years, which included concerns of excessive overtime.
But Maafala and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers didn’t take kindly to the move, and earlier this month filed a complaint with the state Labor Relations Board saying that the chief had made “false and disparaging remarks” about Maafala that painted him in a “sinister light.”
The union also had concerns that she had reassigned other SHOPO officials, including Vice President Malcolm Lutu, Secretary Michael Cusumano and Director-at-Large Don Faumuina, to other divisions against their will.
Ballard says she can’t comment on the specifics of the complaint.
Another one of Ballard’s bolder moves — at least in the context of the ongoing federal investigation into her predecessor — has been to reshape the Criminal Intelligence Unit.
The CIU was a covert group of police officers whose mission was to gather information on organized crime and terrorist activities.
But over the years the CIU gained the reputation as the chief’s goon squad.
The officers reported directly to the chief and weren’t required to write reports which made it nearly impossible to track exactly what it was the CIU was doing on behalf of the department.
“She’s been very forthcoming about the strengths and weaknesses of the department.” — Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan
Scandal plagued the unit almost since its inception in the 1970s to combat a spike in gangland slayings and other crimes.
Ballard has re-assigned nearly all the officers in the CIU and renamed it the Intelligence Enforcement Unit. She says its officers will now write reports and help other divisions, such as narcotics and vice, to gather information that can be used to take down criminals.
Ballard has also created a firewall between herself and the unit. It will fall under the purview of one of her deputy chiefs.
She said she’s now working with the Major Cities Chiefs Association on coming up with best practices for the intelligence-gathering unit.
“The commander of that unit was placed there because I have total confidence in his ethics and morals,” Ballard said.
Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan says Ballard’s influence is already apparent.
When Sheehan first joined the commission in 2016 the department was still under the control of Louis Kealoha and his top deputies.
The FBI’s corruption investigation was in full swing, and officer scandal was commonplace.
“When I would walk into headquarters the mood was suspicious and glum,” Sheehan said. “But now the officers are happy. They have a leader with integrity and competency.”
Ballard is a straight-talker, Sheehan said, and has shown a refreshing willingness to be transparent.
“Chief Ballard does not operate in secrecy,” Sheehan said. “She’s been very forthcoming about the strengths and weaknesses of the department.”
And that’s just in the first four months.