This year, protesters across the country and the world have called for a stop to police brutality and racism in policing and demanded more transparency and accountability from police officers. 

The movement hit Hawaii too, with demonstrations at the State Capitol and on city streets. 

As Honolulu prepares for the November general election, the city’s mayoral candidates have different views on the role of the 1,800-officer police department and the Honolulu Police Commission, the volunteer-run oversight body that hires and fires the chief and investigates some citizen complaints. 

Black Lives Matter marchers gather at Ala Moana beach park with HPD on quads along Ala Moana Boulevard.
Activists have demanded major changes from police departments nationwide. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Rick Blangiardi, Hawaii News Now’s former boss, doesn’t want to make waves when it comes to HPD. 

The frontrunner in the August primary has the endorsement of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and speaks about police with deference. 

Chief Susan Ballard, who has denied that Hawaii’s criminal justice system suffers from the same racial inequities that plague other jurisdictions, is doing a great job in Blangiardi’s opinion. He hopes she continues to lead the department “for a long time.” 

2020 Honolulu Mayor's Race

“Everything I see has been good in their efforts to help us,” said Blangiardi. “I’m very supportive of our police department.” 

Keith Amemiya, a former insurance executive and nonprofit director, is more receptive to the calls from activists for police reform, although the policies he is advocating for are already in place at HPD. 

He acknowledges there is systemic racism in Hawaii’s criminal justice system. On his website, he states that, contrary to the idea that racism exists only on the mainland, there are “layers upon layers of structural inequality, injustice, and systemic racism right here.”

“In Hawaii, this bigotry is often aimed at Pacific Islanders, Hawaiians, Filipinos, and others who face bigotry and who are overrepresented in our prison population and homeless shelters,” the website says.

Asked about Ballard’s performance since she became chief in 2017, he said “it’s still early in her tenure, so it’s hard to say.” 

“But so far, she has provided the stability that the department needs coming on the heels of her predecessor, and his and his wife’s many problems,” he said. Amemiya was, of course, referring to former Chief Louis Kealoha and his former prosecutor wife Katherine Kealoha, both of whom are awaiting sentencing on felony convictions. 

In response to a Civil Beat review that found HPD’s rate of solving crimes is at a historic low, Blangiardi said that as mayor, he would meet with law enforcement to better understand the challenges and identify solutions. 

“Understandably, the news about HPD’s low crime clearing rates is alarming,” he said in a post-interview statement. “I can assure the public that the men and women of our law enforcement are hard-working, dedicated professionals but clearly there are administrative issues that need to be addressed.”

Amemiya said the same, and that he would like the chief to provide a detailed briefing to the Honolulu Police Commission.

“I would be interested to know how police resources are being allocated and perhaps more should be allocated toward solving crimes,” he said. 

The Power Of The Police Commission

Both Blangiardi and Amemiya said they don’t believe the Kealoha scandal was indicative of a systemic problem in HPD.

Asked how he would prevent a similar situation from unfolding on his watch, Blangiardi said he would lead the city with transparency, accountability and trustworthiness. 

Honolulu Mayoral Candidate Rick Blangiardi.
Mayoral candidate Rick Blangiardi believes in the Honolulu Police Commission as it is. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“It comes down to making sure we’re doing the right things,” he said. 

He also said holding police accountable is the job of the Honolulu Police Commission.

“There’s a separation of powers there, so to speak, and they’re responsible for what we’re talking about,” he said. “Unless something happens and I feel otherwise, I’m going to rely on that. And in the areas that the mayor needs to be involved with, I’ll be involved with that.” 

Notably, the Honolulu Police Commission is not the entity that rooted out the Kealohas’ corruption. It was federal investigators.

The Police Commission let Louis Kealoha walk out the door with a $250,000 severance, and two commissioners have quit citing a lack of power to affect change. Blangiardi’s wife Karen Chang is a former member of the Police Commission but was appointed after that payout

Representatives of HPD and the commission have been interviewed about the Kealoha debacle in recent weeks by the city auditor, whose office is conducting a review requested by the Honolulu City Council. 

Nevertheless, Blangiardi said he has “a lot of confidence in that kind of a model.”

“The commission has a responsibility in making sure our chief of police is doing the best job possible and to be that level of support, if you will, as the board of advisers in dealing with issues,” he said. 

“I do believe the chief needs autonomy to operate effectively in their jobs, to be trusted … If we have the right police chief, then everything is going to work right.” 

Asked whether Chief Kealoha had too much autonomy, Blangiardi said: “It’s easy to say that in retrospect, isn’t it?”

The scandal permeated the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office too, Blangiardi noted. That office will be led by either Steve Alm or Megan Kau come January.

“I think we’re in a new day here, a good day, with respect to the quality of the leadership we’re getting from our police department and what that means for the people who live here,” he said.

Honolulu Mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya.
Keith Amemiya wants the Honolulu Police Commission to have more power. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Amemiya said he would like to boost the authority of the Honolulu Police Commission. As a former member of the commission appointed by then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Amemiya said it needs more oversight power.

“Currently, their duties are more or less confined to hiring and firing the police chief and handling citizen complaints against officers,” he said. “It’s important that a police department have proper civilian oversight. I would broaden the powers of the commission to also be able to look at the various procedures in place and their operations.” 

Amemiya wouldn’t want the commission to micromanage HPD’s day to day work, but he said the Kealoha ordeal proves there is a problem. 

“Clearly there is not enough oversight power in the current structure of the Police Commission,” he said. 

No One Is Defunding The Police

Blangiardi said there aren’t any particular policing policies or procedures he would change. However, he said the department could be improved by filling vacant positions and increasing training.

“Everyone needs to learn and grow in their jobs,” he said. 

Amemiya supports several measures demanded by activists including a ban on chokeholds, a requirement for officers to intervene when their peers are misbehaving, and implicit bias training not only for police but all city employees. Chief Susan Ballard has said these measures are already in place at HPD.

A committee, including one Police Commission member, has been reviewing HPD’s use of force policy. HPD has not yet issued a report on that effort.

HPD Honolulu Police Dept officers not practicing ‘social distancing’ during a ‘Re Open Hawaii rally at the Capitol during Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. May 1, 2020.
HPD’s budget is more than $300 million a year. Despite calls from protesters, there are no plans to reduce funding for the police. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Amemiya also supports the use of body cameras, for which a program is already being implemented. 

The majority of HPD officers are “outstanding officers and people” with an increasingly difficult job, Amemiya said. 

“They have to handle homelessness and pandemic-related issues,” he said. 

Within the social movement that is demanding police accountability this year, some people believe that police shouldn’t be responding to social service issues at all and want to “defund the police.” 

Some activists who use his rallying cry want to abolish police departments entirely. Others believe governments should reduce police budgets and allocate money to social services. The idea is that people in crisis are met with a social service provider who specializes in their issue instead of being put into the criminal justice system. 

Amemiya and Blangiardi are not in favor of either option. 

“I wouldn’t reduce the funds because there is currently a huge vacancy in the number of patrol officers,” Amemiya said. “So I hesitate to take away funds if they’re needed to fill the vacancies.” 

Instead, HPD should partner with the Honolulu Department of Community Services and nonprofit social service agencies when responding to calls involving mental health crises, homelessness and domestic violence, Amemiya said. 

“It would be a much more effective way to deal with the homeless to have experts assisting the officers,” Amemiya said. 

While Amemiya does not support cutting HPD’s city budget, he has criticized Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration for allocating nearly $15 million in CARES funds to police overtime during the pandemic, plus another half million dollars for ATVs and UTVs. In Amemiya’s view, that money would’ve been better spent bailing out families and small businesses. 

Blangiardi is against reducing police funding and didn’t take issue with HPD’s influx of CARES cash. He said he’s open to working more with social service agencies to address issues like homelessness, but he doesn’t have a specific plan for that. 

“We need to get elected first here, but I do think we’re going to have some modifications in how we do all this,” he said. 

“I’m not interested in taking money away from the police department. We may reallocate specific duties if we can figure that out, but not necessarily right now taking away monies.” 

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