Voters may get a chance to decide how Honolulu selects its police chief.

Now, the power to hire and fire a police chief rests with the Honolulu Police Commission, a seven-member board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by Honolulu the City Council.

Under a proposed charter amendment, the mayor would instead appoint the chief. Much like city department heads, the mayor’s pick would require the council’s confirmation.

The proposal also would allow the City Council to select some members of the commission and the mayor the rest.

HPD Police Commission meeting held at HPD headquarters.
The Honolulu Police Commission currently has the power to hire and fire the city’s police chief. Councilman Ikaika Anderson wants to change that. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The proposed changes come as a years-long corruption scandal has been playing out at the Honolulu Police Department. Former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha was forced into retirement last year not long before he, his deputy city prosecutor wife and four other HPD officers were indicted by a grand jury as part of an FBI investigation. A fifth officer has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Kealoha’s troubles also came to light after the police commission had given him excellent job approval ratings year after year. Since then, all but one of the old commissioners has been replaced by Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Still, the situation inspired Councilman Ikaika Anderson to introduce the measure late last year. It is scheduled for a vote by the council on Wednesday.

“It is difficult for the public to hold the police commission directly accountable for their decisions,” Anderson said. “If the mayor asked the police chief to do anything unethical or if the mayor chose a turkey to be the police chief, then the voters of Honolulu would hold the mayor accountable.”

Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan says Anderson’s resolution would gut the commission.

“It’s very important to keep law enforcement away from politics,” she said.

Otherwise, “the chief of police is more susceptible to having to do the mayor’s bidding.”

Sheehan pointed to President Donald Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey and the president’s alleged interest in firing special counsel Robert Mueller as examples of politics interfering with law enforcement.

Unlike politicians, police commissioners are typically not beholden to special interest groups, Sheehan added.

“We are not political,” she said. “At least I’m not.”

Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya, testifying at a council legal affairs committee meeting last week, also expressed concerns about the potential harm of surrounding the police chief in politics.

The council is expected to vote on Resolution 17-308 Wednesday. If approved, it goes back to the legal affairs committee for further discussion.

If passed again by the council, the resolution would need Caldwell’s signature before going on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Let The Mayor Make The Call

In the months leading up to Kealoha’s arrest, the public blamed Caldwell for allowing him to remain chief while under federal investigation, Anderson said.

“I don’t think that any elected official would be able to say ‘Well, we need to let the process play out and leave this person on the job and just see what happens,’” Anderson said last week. “The public would have demanded that the administrator at the very least, if not being relieved of their duties, be placed on administrative leave with pay.”

In the run up to the 2016 mayoral election, Caldwell said Kealoha should continue to serve despite the allegations against him.

“We have a process. Let it work,” Caldwell said at a KITV/Civil Beat candidates forum.

Newly elected Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan during recess with outgoing chair Max Sword.
Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan, right, replaced outgoing Chair Max Sword in February. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In January 2017, the commission crafted a $250,000 payout for Kealoha behind closed doors. Then-Commission Chair Max Sword declined a request from the City Council for a briefing on the chief’s retirement package.

Sword could not be reached for comment Tuesday on Anderson’s proposal.

Anderson, who was frustrated with the lack of communication, introduced the charter amendment in December. Besides allowing the mayor to pick the chief, Anderson wants voters to decide if the City Council should appoint four of the commission’s seven members and the mayor the other three.

Get Rid Of Bad Commissioners

Police commissioners uniformly opposed Anderson’s resolution after discussing it at their meeting last week, Sheehan said.

She said hiring, firing and evaluating the police chief are the commission’s most important duties.

Aside from that, the commission reviews the Honolulu Police Department’s annual budget and investigates public complaints against police, but the department is free to ignore the commission’s findings on a case.

Honolulu police spokeswoman Sarah Yoro did not respond to requests for comment.

Sheehan agrees with Anderson that the commission failed to communicate with the council in the past. Rather than strip the commission of hiring and firing power, she said the council should consider introducing a way to remove ineffective commissioners.

Commissioners serve five-year terms and can be reappointed. A mayor can only remove commissioners if they fail to attend more than three consecutive meeting or one-third of all regularly scheduled meetings, or if they fail to prove they participated in the city’s Sunshine Law training program.

“If we’re not doing a good job, we should be kicked out,” she said.

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