Since Honolulu’s former police chief was found guilty of multiple felonies, the department has done little to prevent future chiefs from abusing their police power, according to Police Chief Susan Ballard.
In response to questions from City Councilman Tommy Waters on Wednesday, Ballard told a council committee that it would be “difficult” to prevent a similar scandal from happening again. She noted that the power of the police chief goes largely unchecked.
As chief, “I can put aside any policy or procedure that is in place,” she said. “As far as to stop it again, you’ve just got to make sure that the person you hired is ethical and is doing the right thing because the police chief makes all the decisions for the department.”
The Honolulu Police Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor and have the power to hire and fire the chief, is not involved in the department’s daily operations, Ballard said. Former Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine Kealoha, who was a deputy prosecutor, were both in positions of power and “could feed off each other” to commit their crimes and cover them up, Ballard said.
In response to Waters’ question about whether the department had taken any preventative measures, she said: “Just to be blunt, no.”
Ballard said she surrounds herself with people who “are not going to be ‘yes’ people” and that she keeps an open mind to their suggestions.
Waters noted that the Kealohas were aided by police officers who followed their chief’s directives to help frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle. He asked the chief what measures are in place to protect an officer who refuses to engage in criminality at the direction of a supervisor.
Ballard said the department’s standards of conduct allow officers to resist unlawful orders and to carry out “unjust” orders but report them after the fact. In either case, Ballard said the officer is supposed to inform a supervisor.
If the person giving the improper order is the chief, Ballard said, complaints can be made to the Honolulu Ethics Commission and the Police Commission.
Waters countered that complaints to the Ethics Commission “went unanswered.”
Former Ethics Director Chuck Totto has publicly stated that when he tried to investigate the Kealohas, they retaliated with ethics complaints against him and with lawsuits that have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Totto’s efforts were further undermined by Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration and Caldwell appointees on the commission itself.
The department needs clear protocols for what officers are supposed to do when the chief orders something inappropriate, Waters said.
As for the Police Commission, the group typically only investigates cases of officers displaying a “bad attitude,” according to Deputy Chief Aaron Takasaki-Young. The commission’s agenda often includes complaints from the public about officers using profanity, resorting to unnecessary force or displaying conduct unbecoming an officer.
The commission can investigate notarized complaints from the public and, if they’re substantiated, send them to HPD’s Professional Standards Office, Takasaki-Young said. Reports that the commission does not sustain are still reviewed by the standards office, the deputy chief said. But the Police Commission itself cannot discipline officers.
Takasaki-Young added that officers are not required to cooperate with Police Commission investigations. Their police union agreement, which expires next year, only requires them to submit to the standards office investigation.
Officers are handpicked to work in the standards office not by seniority but by character and integrity, Takasaki-Young said.
Nevertheless, Waters said he was concerned that members of the public would not feel comfortable complaining to police officers about one of their colleagues. He said the public would probably feel more comfortable reporting to an independent body.
“You’re having police officers investigate other police officers,” Waters said. “It’s like the fox guarding the hen house.”
Ballard said lawmakers could consider making the Police Commission an independent entity. HPD could also improve its communication with the prosecuting attorney’s office to create a procedure for reporting criminal conduct within the police force, she said.
But in general, Ballard said the police department is “harder on our own” than an independent body would be.
Wednesday’s meeting of the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee was scheduled to discuss a recent city audit requested by the City Council that found that HPD does a decent job of addressing misconduct, but needs to take steps to prevent it.
Ballard told council members that she wasn’t sure how the department could do that without establishing a new unit that would focus on data analysis and risk management, which she acknowledged is unrealistic considering the city’s $400 million pandemic-related budget shortfall.
Short of that, she said she is working to hold her sergeants and lieutenants more accountable. But doing an in-depth data analysis is probably asking too much because the staff lacks that kind of expertise, she said.
“We could ask them to do it, but are they doing it? I’m going to tell you no, they probably would not,” she said.
Despite that, Ballard said she and her department are receptive to calls for change.
“For far too long we sat on our laurels as a police department, and I think we became stale and became complacent,” she said.
At the council committee meeting, members also discussed an audit of the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. That report found that despite disgraced former prosecutor Katherine Kealoha’s abuse of her position, the department “has not made any substantive changes to its policies or procedures.”
Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto did not attend the meeting. In response to the audit, his office issued a letter that expressed disagreement with the audit’s implication that the office was not motivated to change after the “highly publicized misdeeds of one specific deputy.”
Committee Chair Ron Menor said he was “deeply troubled” by the audit findings and said that they echo concerns he expressed last year about the “utter lack of leadership of the acting prosecutor.”
“So it’s not surprising to me that neither he nor a representative of the prosecuting attorney’s office has even bothered to show up to respond to our auditor’s report,” Menor said.
“I do remain optimistic that under the leadership of Chief Ballard and (incoming Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm), we can expect significant improvements and changes that will prevent the kind of misconduct and corruption that occurred in our top law enforcement agencies, and that will engender and reaffirm public trust and confidence in those agencies.”
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