- Special Projects
When Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard receives her inaugural job evaluation next week, the Honolulu Police Commission will for the first time in memory make public the details of a chief’s annual review.
In a move intended to boost transparency and restore public confidence in the review process, the commissioners assessed Ballard’s performance using a new, more inclusive process. It draws on the input of more than two dozen government and community organizations, as well as interviews with police officers and self-evaluation materials provided by Ballard.
Police Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan and Commissioner Steven Levinson said they set out to revamp the review process in January due to concerns about the fairness of past procedures and a desire to better integrate the opinions of community stakeholders.
“We are not fans of the approach that past commissions have taken at times of circling the wagons and forcing a lawsuit ordering them to disclose information as a precondition to them disclosing information that the law clearly defines as accessible to the public,” Levinson said.
“Loretta and I, and very likely the commission in its entirety, believes in openness and transparency and making information available up front so that there’s no mystery or appearance of improper secrecy.”
Ballard was sworn in as Honolulu’s first female chief in 2017 amid a corruption scandal. So far the scandal has led to federal charges filed against former Chief Louis Kealoha, his wife Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy prosecutor, and several HPD officers.
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.”
“Steve and I were aware that the police commission under Chief Kealoha performed the evaluation by considering evidence that was provided to them by Chief Kealoha,” Sheehan said. “Their evaluation process didn’t make sense to me, so I set out to do it in a different way.”
The new evaluation process, Levinson said, is a credible, honest and thorough undertaking that the public can have confidence in.
“We made it very clear that we were not going to be a cheerleading section for the chief, nor were we out to get the chief,” said Levinson. “We simply wanted to do a thorough, complete, accurate and honest evaluation.”
Ballard’s evaluation is slated for public release on March 20 at the regularly scheduled Honolulu Police Commission meeting.
In their evaluation of Ballard’s performance, the Police Commission scored Ballard in seven categories: 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.
The commissioners interviewed representatives from about 25 government and community organizations, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, the police union and social service providers.
Commissioners split up to conduct these interviews alone or in groups of two and then provided a summary of each interview’s contents to the full Commission.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, who has taken a paid leave of absence and is now a target of the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation, originally sat for an interview with Commissioner Carrie Okinaga about Ballard’s performance.
But when Sheehan instructed commissioners to make sure interviewees knew that the commission could not guarantee them confidentiality, she said Kaneshiro withdrew from the evaluation process.
Okinaga referred a reporter to Sheehan for comment for this story.
An unknown number of HPD officers were also interviewed. Commission Vice Chairwoman Shannon Alivado, who conducted the police officer interviews, declined to comment on the evaluation process before its public release. Sheehan and Levinson said they did not know how Alivado chose which officers to interview.
Ballard also provided materials for review by the commission. She completed a self-evaluation and answered a list of questions.
Ballard chose to waive her privacy interest, thereby giving commissioners the green light to make public the evaluation materials. The one exception is the names of the police officers who contributed information to the evaluation process. At its March 6 meeting, the commission voted unanimously to redact those names from the public record.
Had Ballard chosen to assert her privacy interest in releasing the evaluation materials, the commission would have voted on whether her privacy interest outweighs the public interest for access to the evaluation records.
Ballard told the commissioners that she also did not want to know the names of the police officers who participated because she doesn’t want to be influenced or have the appearance of being influenced by their remarks in her future decisions to promote or discipline officers.
Ballard declined the opportunity to provide a written response to be included with the evaluation materials.
Sheehan said the the Commission’s membership was unanimous in its agreement that the chief’s evaluation should be reflective of an evaluation by the community at large and not the collective opinions of seven commissioners, as was the case in the past.
But there were some internal debates among commission members over the value of confidentiality, she said.
“Commissioner (Carrie) Okinaga, in particular, felt that if you make the summaries of interviews public, then all you’re going to get is fluff and high praise,” Sheehan said. “Because in this town, people have good manners and nobody wants to criticize someone in a very public way and nobody’s really going to bite down and tell you what’s going on if they know there’s a chance that it could be made public.”
Sheehan added that she understand Okinaga’s concern, and agreed that there are probably people who will pull their punches.
A chief of police can be fired or suspended with or without pay based on his or her evaluation score, but the score does not influence the chief’s salary.
Last year the Police Commission asked Ballard this question repeatedly: How does HPD determine whether to approve or deny firearm carry applications?
According to Sheehan, the Police Commission never received a complete and clear answer.
The Police Commission’s interest in the question was promoted in part by a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last summer that found a Hawaii law unconstitutional because it restricted gun owner George Young of Hilo from exercising his right to carry a firearm openly.
It was also inspired by the plight of gun owner John Bates, who has applied to HPD for a license to carry a firearm in public every year since 2005. And every year, his application is rejected.
“We didn’t feel satisfied with the responses we had been getting from Chief Ballard,” Sheehan said. “Finally, Steve and I agreed just to take it off the agenda and to back off because we had been asking and asking and asking every meeting and it’s clear we weren’t getting anywhere.”
Sheehan said she wants to make sure that regulations exist that honor the state’s constitutional obligations.
Both Sheehan and Levinson said the commission’s inability to obtain a clear answer from Ballard about the exact contents of the department’s regulations on this issue has been the commission’s biggest conflict with Ballard.
All told though, Sheehan described Ballard’s first year as “extraordinary,” commending her for stepping up to address the island’s homelessness problem and establishing an elder abuse and fraud detail and a cyber crime unit.
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.