Almost a year after national protests demanded increased accountability for police, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi has an important decision to make: his first appointment to the Honolulu Police Commission.
His pick will join six other volunteer members whose job it is to provide oversight to one of the country’s largest police departments and who have the power to hire and fire the police chief.
The mayor’s decision could tip the scales of the commission, whose members’ attitudes toward Police Chief Susan Ballard range from complimentary to critical. The decision comes at a crucial time for the chief, whose five-year term is up for renewal at the end of next year.
Blangiardi, who was endorsed by the police union during his mayoral run, has said he wants to appoint a former police officer to the job – someone who will have “empathy” towards law enforcement. The statement concerned some community members who argue what is needed is someone with no ties to the police and is willing to ask tough questions.
“We need someone on the commission who is not going to act as a rubber stamp for the police but who is going to cause some ‘good trouble,’” said Jacquie Esser, a public defender who ran unsuccessfully for Honolulu prosecutor last year.
City Council Chair Tommy Waters is hoping the mayor chooses someone who is fair-minded and isn’t afraid to be confrontational if necessary.
The commission needs “someone who is independent, smart, who asks the right questions and is not afraid to ask these questions,” he said.
Blangiardi’s office said he was not available to comment for this story.
Ballard also refused a request for an interview.
There is no shortage of topics to discuss.
On Ballard’s watch, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people killed by police officers, the department’s crime solving rate hit a 40-year low and overtime spending nearly doubled, with officers caught abusing it during the pandemic.
The department also attracted criticism for spending hundreds of thousands of CARES Act dollars – meant to promote public health and the economy – on what one officer called “toys,” including ATVs, a drone and a robot dog.
Data shows racial disparities in policing and use of force, particularly in Black and Micronesian communities.
Questions have also been raised about how a secretive unit of police officers that reports directly to Ballard’s office was used to conduct surveillance on a political appointee on behalf of the previous mayor’s administration.
In response to questions, Ballard has often appeared defensive. Yet she has maintained the support of Commission Chair Shannon Alivado and Commissioner Carrie Okinaga.
A government lobbyist and daughter of a former HPD officer, Alivado took over the chair position saying she wanted to bring more “aloha” to the commission. She was nominated by Okinaga, who works as general counsel for the University of Hawaii and spent years as Honolulu’s top civil lawyer defending HPD from various lawsuits involving officer misconduct.
Both commissioners frequently praise the chief and dismiss her critics.
When advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union sent in identical form letters demanding police reform, Okinaga snubbed the feedback as “remarkably duplicative.” Earlier last year, she discounted ACLU criticism about racial disparities in policing by saying the group cherrypicks the “data points they want to emphasize.”
On several occasions when Ballard has complained to the commission about negative media coverage of her department, the commissioners have responded with sympathy.
After Hawaii News Now reported that millions had been spent to run a homeless tent city that was sitting mostly empty, Alivado called the report unfair and “disappointing.”
When HNN reported that HPD’s COVID-19 enforcement teams would disband because of widespread overtime rule violations, Okinaga criticized the news coverage, praised the chief for what she called an “honest and heartfelt” acceptance of responsibility and lamented officers having fewer opportunities to earn overtime pay.
Okinaga also thanked Ballard for being “very transparent” about the issue, despite the fact that it had come to light because someone leaked a document to the TV station.
Commissioners Michael Broderick and Doug Chin, who were appointed by former mayor Kirk Caldwell amid national calls for police accountability last year, have been more critical of the department.
After HPD reported an increase in its uses of force – felt disproportionately by Pacific Islanders and Blacks – Broderick requested a briefing that sparked a critical discussion.
When Ballard disputed data showing her department was failing to solve the majority of crimes, Broderick was the only commissioner to ask her to provide data she believed was accurate.
And after the ACLU filed a lawsuit that pointed out that HPD lacked a conflict of interest policy, Broderick made a motion recommending that HPD create one. It passed despite dissenting votes from Alivado and Okinaga.
“They have a great deal of empathy for her and the challenges she has,” Commissioner Richard Parry said of Alivado and Okinaga’s attitudes toward the chief. “They’re not shy to make that known and make that obvious.”
Parry has also pressed HPD for information, such as earlier this month when he secured a promise from Ballard that she would make public an investigative report into overtime abuses.
Commissioner Jerry Gibson, who did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment, is “not an aggressive questioner” and prefers to offer his opinions quietly, Parry said.
Alivado declined to comment for this article. So did Okinaga, who was recently reappointed by Caldwell to another five-year term and was confirmed unanimously by the Honolulu City Council.
Now, on the brink of gaining another member, the commission is at a crossroads. The chief could gain another ally, or she might have to answer to another critic.
“The commission is the only body on the entire island that can hold the department accountable,” Broderick said. “And I’ve tried like heck to do that while also making sure to acknowledge the good work of the chief and the department.”
As for what his colleagues are contributing to that end, Broderick didn’t want to say.
“I’m not going to comment on the effectiveness of the other commissioners,” he said. “I think people can watch and listen to the meetings, and I think they’ll very quickly draw their own conclusions.”
When former federal prosecutor Loretta Sheehan was appointed to the Honolulu Police Commission in 2016, the body was loaded with political insiders who refused to investigate former chief Louis Kealoha despite the fact he was the target of an FBI criminal investigation.
Instead, they continued to give him high marks and tell him he “exceeds expectations.”
Sheehan made clear early on that she would not go along with business as usual. During one of her first meetings as a commissioner, she grilled Kealoha about the Justice Department’s investigation and whether he had received a target letter indicating he was a criminal suspect.
She also pressed him about other incidents that had cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal settlements and brought public shame to the department, such as the time an HPD officer arrested a gay couple for kissing in a grocery store.
Sheehan’s tactics rankled her colleagues, several of whom came to the chief’s defense. They’d never dealt with a commissioner so willing to talk openly about the department’s problems.
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” Sheehan said at the time. “We represent the citizens of the city and county, and we have an obligation to ask the chief questions.”
Sheehan was a lone voice of dissent until she was joined by Steve Levinson, a retired Hawaii Supreme Court associate justice.
Levinson was willing to disagree with his colleagues and push back against the prevailing bureaucratic inertia that had built up over years of complacency. Together he and Sheehan shifted the culture of the commission and pushed for more accountability.
They openly quarreled with Caldwell’s top legal advisor, Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, over whether the city should pay for officers’ legal fees when they were accused of misconduct and fought against her attempts to keep commission business hidden from public view.
Their outspokenness often shocked the administration. When Leong negotiated a $250,000 severance package for Kealoha — a deal she described as “take it or leave it” — Sheehan was the only one to vote against it. Leong is now under federal investigation for her part in orchestrating the payout.
Caldwell refused to appoint Sheehan to another term on the commission.
In December 2019, she said, she was at a Christmas party with the mayor when she approached him about why he was sitting on her application when her current term was set to expire at the end of the month.
“I told him of some of my plans, some of the things I wanted to see the police commission accomplish and what he said to me was, ‘I have a better idea,’” Sheehan said.
By then Sheehan’s relationship with Ballard had cooled considerably. She said Caldwell offered her a position on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which oversees the city’s $10 billion rail project. Sheehan said she was surprised by the offer, especially considering how little she knew of public transit.
“He insisted it would be a good idea,” she said. “He told me, ‘You’re a go-getter. You’ll ask the tough questions.’”
Sheehan said she declined the offer and instead chose to serve on the commission as a holdover until Caldwell could find a replacement.
Caldwell didn’t return a call for comment for this story.
In January 2020, the board voted 5-2 to oust Loretta Sheehan as the chairperson and replace her with Alivado. A few months later, Sheehan and Levinson quit in frustration over what they described as the commission’s lack of power to reform the department.
“I would not expect going forward to see a lot of waves made by the commission,” Levinson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser at the time.
Without those members, the commission was “definitely backsliding,” according to Alexander Silvert, the former federal public defender who helped uncover the Kealoha conspiracy. And it never fully recovered, he said.
“Overall, the commission has returned to a position where it’s not seriously questioning the chief or making its own independent inquiries,” he said.
Jessica Hernandez, a 31-year-old Ala Moana resident, started watching commission meetings last year amid national protests demanding police accountability and reform. She quickly found herself disappointed.
Commissioners seemed like they wanted to be friendly with Ballard rather than press her on the many issues facing the department, Hernandez said.
The lack of inquiry is all the more glaring in light of Ballard’s increasingly fractured relationship with the media. When the chief and her administration dodge interviews, Hernandez said, it’s up to the commissioners to step in to get answers on behalf of the community. Too often, though, she hears them asking “softball questions.”
“They have this opportunity to get real answers and push the department to do better, be more transparent and be more clear on what they’re doing, but they seem to just let go of the opportunity,” Hernandez said.
“So what’s the point? Why are you there? You have to be willing to get uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem the commission is willing to lean into conflict when it’s necessary.”
Council Chair Waters thinks the Police Commission is not doing enough to hold the department accountable, and that changes to the law may be necessary.
Among the commission’s stated missions is to “maintain a meaningful, fair and effective system” in which complaints about police conduct are “received, considered, investigated and resolved.”
But that’s not happening, Waters said.
Complaints to the commission are reviewed and then sent to HPD’s professional standards office and ultimately the chief for adjudication. That is the case even if the chief is the target of the complaint, Waters confirmed while questioning Ballard during a council committee meeting in December.
“At the very least, we should resolve the problem where the chief would be disciplining herself,” Waters said.
Broderick would like to take it a step further. He believes commissioners should have the final say on discipline for any officer who is named in a complaint submitted directly to the commission. Complaints sent to HPD’s internal affairs office would still be adjudicated by the department, Broderick said.
Even for HPD oversight more broadly, the commission’s power is limited. For instance, the group can review the chief’s five-year plan but has no authority to reject it.
“In many respects, the commission’s hands are tied,” Waters said.
Chin, a former Hawaii attorney general, agreed that while the commission has the power to fire the police chief, there is little they can do short of that “very severe bludgeon.”
Still, Chin said he would like to see the body be more proactive in pushing the chief to address issues such as unconscious bias and use of force rather than reacting to the latest scandal in the media.
“The commission can only do what it has the authority to do,” Chin said. “I do think there is a bully pulpit role that the commission can play, and I don’t want to minimize that, but I just think the charter allows what it allows right now.”
Blangiardi hasn’t publicly identified anyone he’s considering for the remaining commission vacancy, but his office is inviting suggestions.
The commission needs more diversity, according to Parry. Four of the six current members are lawyers. Parry said the commission would benefit from having a member from the Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander community who has a different professional background than the others.
According to Waters, Silvert and Esser would both be great candidates.
Silvert said he would welcome the opportunity to serve on the commission. Appointing a police officer, he said, is “fraught with danger” because it could simply add another “yes-man” to the mix.
“I don’t have a political stake in my future,” Silvert said. “I’m not beholden to anybody or any power within the city and county or state government. As a free actor, I think I would have the ability and certainly the desire to ask the questions that need to be asked.”
Esser said she would also be happy to serve. As it is now, the commission has no members with a background in public defense or community organizing, she said, and no one who has been “directly impacted by the criminal legal system.”
“I would like to see the mayor appoint someone with this perspective,” she said. “This is how we build trust, demand accountability and advance public safety.”
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