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The Honolulu City Council on Friday unanimously approved a $550,000 settlement in a decade-old lawsuit that alleges Police Chief Susan Ballard played a role in altering test scores of some police academy recruits.
The settlement will be paid to 33-year HPD veteran Lt. Deeann Koanui, who filed the suit in 2009.
Koanui had signed up to testify before the council Friday, but did not show up. Council members did not discuss the settlement before voting to approve it.
The complaint claims that Koanui faced retaliation and harassment for reporting altered test scores to the Internal Affairs Division.
The manipulation of both written and physical fitness exam scores is alleged to have happened in 2008 at a time when HPD had persistent vacancies — and unfilled officer positions faced being eliminated from the department.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009.
Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu provided the following statement: “The case has been amicably resolved. The Honolulu Police Department wishes Lt. Koanui well.”
The lawsuit was publicized around the time Ballard was sworn in as chief in November 2017. Two police commission members said they were aware of the allegations in the lawsuit, but that didn’t dissuade them from supporting Ballard.
A sergeant at the time, Koanui was responsible for evaluating and testing police recruits on their physical fitness in April 2008, when seven recruits failed a written exam on their knowledge of property crimes, the lawsuit states.
Five of them failed the retest and should have been terminated, according to the suit. Instead, the suit alleges they were given passing scores by Ballard and/or Lt. Stephen Gerona.
According to the lawsuit, Ballard, who then held the rank of major, changed the testing protocol to give recruits a better shot at passing. When Koanui alerted Ballard that her changes would invalidate the test results, the lawsuit alleges that Ballard replied, “When we get sued, we’ll deal with it then.”
When a recruit failed a portion of both the physical fitness test and the retest under the improper protocol implemented by Ballard, the lawsuit claims Ballard ordered Koanui to give the recruit a passing score. Koanui, who had already told the recruit that she failed the test, had to go back and tell her she had passed, according to the suit.
In another example cited in the suit, a recruit was given a passing grade after she failed the test and four retests in the bench press section of the physical fitness exam.
When Ballard and Gerona became aware of Koanui’s opposition to the practice of falsifying test scores and incorrectly administering exams, Koanui asserts she became the target of discrimination, harassment, retaliation and was removed from her role in supervising the physical training program.
The lawsuit alleges that Ballard ordered that the recruit tests be shredded, thereby “destroying evidence that would have corroborated that the test results had been changed under her command.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Ballard ordered Koanui to get a psychiatric evaluation, which showed her as being fit for duty.
The lawsuit also claims harsh treatment of female recruits, harassment of women in the dojo by Gerona and health and safety risks posed by an indoor shooting range that was later shut down by OSHA.
Koanui reported the alleged improprieties to HPD’s Internal Affairs and Human Resources divisions, as well as the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission.
Honolulu attorney Carl Varady, who represents Koanui in the lawsuit, expressed concern Friday that the allegations in the lawsuit didn’t have a greater influence on Ballard’s swearing in as chief of police in 2017 amid a corruption scandal that so far has led to federal charges filed against former Chief Louis Kealoha, his prosecutor wife and five HPD officers.
“Whatever people may think about Susan Ballard’s management of the HPD since she’s become the chief, what is indisputable is that these facts were known and were not considered a factor in her appointment,” Varady said.
He added, “I think what’s most offensive about this case is the effect it had on the career of a police officer who really gave everything she had to make the department better.”
Police Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan said Friday she chalks the lawsuit up to “a personal beef” between Koanui and Ballard. She said the settlement doesn’t change her opinion of Ballard and her current performance as chief.
“My biggest concern was with adjusting the test grades, and when I heard (Ballard’s) explanation as far as why the scoring had been adjusted — not fixed for a certain few but adjusted across the board— it made perfect sense to me,” Sheehan said.
“There are officers who don’t necessarily have to know whether something is a Class A felony or a Class B felony, but they have to recognize certain elements of a crime and know when there is probable cause to take action.”
Police Commissioner Steven Levinson said he was “generally aware” of the lawsuit at the time of Ballard’s vetting for the position of chief of police. He said he’s curious to know more about the suit and plans to ask Ballard about it at the March 20 commission meeting, probably in executive session.
“It doesn’t really change current reality,” Levinson said. “The lawsuit alleges events that happened a long time ago and the chief has her own take on those events. It’s basically water under the bridge at this point.”
In December 2008, about 30 cars parked outside the Honolulu police academy became submerged in as much as 4 feet of murky water when the Kapakani Stream flooded a portion of Waipahu Depot Street.
New recruits jumped into the deep, brown water and pushed a few of the cars to higher ground. Ballard, then the academy commander, joined in while most of the other instructors watched.
The episode was recounted in a September 2017 letter to the police commission by Officer William Tamamoto. The letter urged members to select Ballard to be the next police chief.
“I believe this is a prime example of an excellent leader,” Tamamoto wrote. “It showed Major Ballard’s compassion and willingness to help others in need.”
In Koanui’s lawsuit, Ballard’s role in this same incident is cast in a different light.
“Ballard ordered the recruits to swim and wade in the water and to push the cars out to higher ground, which by then were total losses,” the lawsuit claims.
The suit alleges that the recruits all had to pay their insurance deductibles, rent cars to get to work and file workers’ compensation claims for brown water exposure.
Koanui reported the incident to Internal Affairs, according to the lawsuit.
But Sheehan said she did not see how the flooding incident could be the basis of a lawsuit.
“Of course, every litigant, I imagine, feels justified in what they put in their complaint, but I didn’t really see anything that raised any red flags for me in terms of Chief Ballard as chief,” Sheehan said. “The complaint isn’t raising any issues that I thought were really disturbing.”
View a copy of the original lawsuit filed in 2009:
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