The Honolulu Police Commission is down to a skeleton crew with two of its most vocal members — former chair Loretta Sheehan and former vice-chair Steve Levinson — resigning in frustration over the commission’s lack of power to change the police department.

Another commissioner — Karen Chang — resigned earlier this year before her husband, Rick Blangiardi announced his run for Honolulu mayor. That leaves four members on a seven-member commission.

Sheehan, an attorney and former federal prosecutor who was ousted as chair in January, resigned Monday. Levinson, a retired Hawaii Supreme Court associate justice, resigned last week as he awaits cancer treatment.

As commissioners, they advocated for transparency and accountability.

“It was ultimately a sense of frustration over the feeling that we were kind of spitting in the ocean,” Levinson, who began as commissioner in December 2016, said.  The commission is supposed to provide oversight, but can’t change policy or administrative affairs, he added. Sheehan did not respond to calls for comment.

The two Honolulu Police Commission resignations come as much of the country breaks out in protests calling for police accountability following the death of George Floyd.

Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan and Steven Levinson editorial board.

Steve Levinson and Loretta Sheehan resigned from the Honolulu Police Commission.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During their tenures, the two commissioners led the charge for seeking a more transparent evaluation process for the chief of police and making the annual review public.

Sheehan was the sole vote against approving a $250,000 retirement deal for Louis Kealoha, the former Honolulu Police Chief who was convicted of conspiracy in federal court, among other charges, along with his wife, former city prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, and two of his officers.

Sheehan wanted him fired before her colleagues did. The former commission chair drafted a lengthy letter spelling out why she thought Louis Kealoha should be removed from his post, including dwindling morale among the officers, excessive use of force and domestic violence within the ranks.

However, there was a “vested interest in not rocking the boat,” and enough was enough, Levinson said. “Loretta and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

The commission has no power over policy, he said.

“We don’t have any power at all,” Levinson said. “It’s ultimately up to the chief. The chief has a monopoly over those kinds of powers. That’s the way the city charter’s written.”

Shannon Alivado, the commission’s current chair, disagreed.

Honolulu Police Commission Chair Shannon Alivado.

Shannon Alivado took over as chair of the Honolulu Police Commission in January 2020.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The charter does give certain restrictions as far as how far we can go,” she said. “But if there are issues going on in the department that we need to know about, I think we have the tools necessary.”

The commission has always had an important role in providing a venue for the public to question the police, she said.

However, since the emergency proclamation for COVID-19 temporarily suspended open meetings laws, the commission has held private meetings via teleconferencing inaccessible to the public — something Levinson raised as an issue.

That issue has been resolved, Alivado said. The meeting Wednesday will be streamed on YouTube and testimony will be accepted by telephone.

Sheehan and Levinson’s departures will change the dynamic of the already slimmed down commission, the commission chair said. With Sheehan, Levinson and Chang gone, just four members remain —  Alivado, Jerry Gibson, Carrie Okinaga and Richard Parry.

It’s going to be quite different,” Alivado said. “But we’re going to continue to do what we’re required to do in our roles.”

Alivado said Sheehan and Levinson each brought valuable perspectives to the commission’s conversations.

“We really just appreciated all their time with us and wish them the best,” she said.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a statement that Sheehan and Levinson served during an “important period of transition and confidence-building” at the department.

“Not only did they lead the commission in the selection of Susan Ballard as the first woman Chief of Police in Hawai‘i, but they also helped and supported the new Chief in the early days of her administration,” he said.

Caldwell said he would be appointing three new commissioners shortly.

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