- Special Projects
The Honolulu Police Commission on Thursday unveiled its largely favorable evaluation of Chief Susan Ballard and for the first time publicized data and summaries of interviews with dozens of government leaders, community members and police officers who helped commissioners assess Ballard’s performance in 2018.
Ballard was sworn in as Honolulu’s first female chief in 2017 amid a corruption scandal that led to federal charges against former Chief Louis Kealoha, his wife and former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and several HPD officers. Taking the helm of a broken department fraught with depleted public trust and low officer morale, Ballard swiftly made strides to restore pride and professionalism to HPD, the commission wrote in its summary assessment.
“You took a fractured and somewhat mistrustful department and you completely turned it around,” Police Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan told Ballard Wednesday at a Police Commission meeting.
The evaluation commends Ballard for unifying the police force with sweeping personnel changes and an ambitious five-year plan to address staffing shortages, adopt new technology and collaborate with social service providers to cope with issues like domestic violence and the island’s robust homeless population.
The commission also noted Ballard’s emphasis on the role of police officers as community guardians rather than militant soldiers and the positive effect this mentality shift has had on how officers view themselves and how they are regarded by the community.
Overall, the commission concluded that Ballard has met or exceeded all of their expectations, while noting several areas in which they have concerns or would like her to improve.
The evaluation process for Ballard has been handled much differently than for previous chiefs. Under Kealoha’s tenure, the commission did not publicly release any materials to justify how it arrived at the chief’s score each year.
In fact, when Kealoha was a target of the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation into Honolulu corruption, the commission repeatedly praised the former chief in his annual performance evaluations as “exceeding expectations.”
But in a move intended to renew public confidence in the review process for the chief of police, the Commission released Ballard’s grades along with dozens of pages of backup data on which the commissioners based their assessment.
Also included in the materials is Ballard’s self-evaluation, in which she indicated unilaterally that she believes she is “meeting expectations” in the seven categories in which she was judged: leadership, management, budgeting, training and development, communication and community relations, her relationship with the commission and how well she executed on her goals defined in her annual action plan.
“It’s very difficult for me to grade myself,” Ballard said. “I’m just not comfortable doing something like that, and so everything was ‘meets’ expectations — nothing ‘exceeds.’ And my justification for that is that we can always do better, nothing is ever perfect, there’s always something that we can improve on, especially in the first year.”
Ballard’s mostly glowing evaluation is not without criticisms.
Representatives from the Sex Abuse Treatment Center reported that detectives working on sexual assault crimes tend to be under-trained and eager to transfer to a different unit, which has derailed progress addressing these crimes. They noted that sexual assault appears to be a low-priority crime within the department.
SATC leadership did, however, applaud HPD for the renewed attention it has recently given to addressing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits.
“We do really want to make sure that our department is the best in the world.” — Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kevin Takata told commissioners that his efforts to partner with HPD to investigate child pornographers and the online trafficking of juveniles have been unsuccessful due to the department’s staffing shortages.
Takata said he asked Ballard if HPD would agree to receive one or two tips per month from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children identifying the IP addresses of suspected child pornographers, with the caveat that HPD could reject the tips and decline to investigate at any time. Takata said he secured a reluctant verbal agreement from HPD leadership but has not been able to move forward with the partnership in writing or in practice.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell called on Ballard to improve communication and collaboration between HPD and the Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, who has taken a paid leave of absence and is now a target of the Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation, originally sat for an interview with Commissioner Carrie Okinaga about Ballard’s performance. But when informed that the commission could not guarantee his remarks would be kept confidential, Kaneshiro withdrew from the evaluation process, according to Sheehan.
On Wednesday, Ballard said she welcomes criticism and plans to take seriously any critiques from commissioners, police officers and community members. She declined to publicly discuss individual critiques included in her review because she had not yet discussed them with her commanding staff.
“We do really want to make sure that our department is the best in the world,” Ballard said.
A majority of the commentary in Ballard’s evaluation is flattering.
The Police Commission notes that she focused on reestablishing fraying relationships between HPD and community groups and government agencies. In a year, she expedited police officer misconduct investigations by shortening the average length of an inquiry from 101 days to 70 days. She led the department in analyzing domestic violence cases involving police officers with the goal of decreasing the number of cases involving HPD personnel.
Ballard launched a cybercrime unit, implemented new training to aid officers in dealing with homeless people and people with mental illness and assigned a captain to establish a new unit that coordinates with government and nonprofit organizations to focus efforts in addressing the homeless population.
She started the roll-out of police officer body cameras, partnered with the FBI to address threats of violence on Oahu and built trust with officers by going on ride-alongs with patrol officers. She increased recruitment efforts and reduced the average length of time it takes from when a recruit applies for a police officer job to when they receive a job offer from 14 months to six months.
This work also helped the department identify a serious challenge to recruitment: Only 10 percent of qualified applicants pass background checks.
Police union leaders reported that addressing HPD’s staffing shortage will be Ballard’s biggest obstacle.
To that end, Ballard set a goal last year to fill patrol beats to a minimum of 75 percent staffing level to ensure that officers are able to respond to calls efficiently and effectively without feeling overly burned by the lack of manpower. In 2018, Ballard met that goal for 95 percent of HPD’s patrol beats.
Police officers interviewed for the evaluation reported that they feel less stressed and better supported by the staffing change, but it has come at a cost: the department overspent its $10.5 million overtime budget by $4.3 million.
Overall, police union leaders reported fewer grievances filed under Ballard’s leadership and noted that she imposes discipline appropriately and not merely to demonstrate control or deflect public criticism. Ballard trusts her commanding officers to make the right call and that, in turn, has improved morale, union leaders said.
Connie Mitchell, executive director of The Institute for Human Services, said Ballard has been committed to addressing problems related to homelessness and mental illness by assigning a new unit to collaborate with IHS and other service providers on finding creative solutions. In the past, Mitchell said, it could be difficult to work effectively with police officers who were more inclined to wait for orders than to show initiative. But she said Ballard seems to have caused a cultural shift in which officers and service providers are working hand-in-hand, calling each other and planning together.
Caldwell noted that while many government leaders waited for state officials to alleviate public panic during the false missile alert, Ballard sent officers with bullhorns to the streets to inform the public that the alert was issued in error.
While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.