KILAUEA, Kauai — When Todd Raybuck moved to Kauai from Las Vegas to become the Garden Isle’s police chief in April 2019, he took the reins of a department reeling from a flurry of allegations of corruption and cover-ups.
Installing an outsider at KPD’s helm was seen by some as a possible end to what had become the status quo: a police force embattled by controversy, disunity and low morale.
Nearly two years later, Raybuck has landed at the center of a new scandal after he was caught on audio mocking people of Asian descent by bowing his head, squinting his eyes and mimicking someone with a Japanese accent.
The Kauai Police Commission conducted a discrimination investigation that found Raybuck had created a hostile work environment and violated county policies for mocking Asians in November 2019 and July 2020.
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers called on Raybuck to resign immediately. But local leadership, including the mayor, voiced support for the police chief, citing his good record of performance.
He said he never intended to discriminate against or humiliate others.
“In hindsight I recognize that, regardless of my intent, my words have caused people pain,” Raybuck said in the video posted to his Facebook page.
“I recognize now that my comments were insensitive and improper as the chief of police,” he added. “I respect the findings of the investigation and I will accept the police commission’s decision on my discipline.”
Police Commission Chairwoman Catherine Adams wrote in a Feb. 26 letter that Raybuck’s actions are cause for “appropriate corrective action,” but any discipline measures decided on by the commission are confidential.
Watch Chief Todd Raybuck’s 2-minute apology.
The controversy marred what has otherwise been a seemingly stellar career on Kauai.
Trumpeting a commitment to transparency, Raybuck harnessed the power of social media as the island’s new police chief to communicate directly with community members about public safety and his personal life.
He pledged to address chronic staffing shortages, embrace progressive tools like body cameras and review the allocation of the department’s limited resources.
By many accounts, that strategy has worked to make him an effective and popular police chief.
Mayor Derek Kawakami said Raybuck’s discriminatory words and actions are hurtful but won’t affect their good working relationship going forward.
“I was hurt because I know the chief, our office rolled out the red carpet to accommodate him and get him and his family acclimated to Kauai,” Kawakami said Friday in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight program. “But for anybody that’s wondering, the chief and I will be able to work fine.”
“Don’t focus on this. Don’t let this be a focus of Kauai because we have bigger things to focus on right now,” he said, referring to recent flooding and pandemic woes.
But ACLU of Hawaii Legal Director Wookie Kim said the controversy should be the county’s top priority.
“When a police chief is expressing racist beliefs and attitudes and is actually engaging in racist conduct against members of the community they are serving, they are not doing a good job,” Kim said. “You’re not doing a good job if you are violating federal anti-discrimination law, undermining public trust and ultimately perpetuating white supremacy.”
Renae Hamilton-Cambeilh, executive director of the YWCA of Kauai, said public officials must be held to a high standard.
“It’s really disappointing for the entire community because we’ve gone through so many police chiefs in a short amount of time and another change in chief would be hard on everybody,” Hamilton-Cambeilh said. ”It’s a no-win situation.”
“I think we have to hold our leadership to a higher standard,” she added. “It doesn’t erase all the good work he did, but I think it undermines work that could be done in the future. If he can’t be 100% effective then it would be best for him to resign. Do his own officers support him? If they can’t, that’s a problem.”
County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden, who is the chairwoman of the council’s public safety committee, said Raybuck’s behavior is especially disappointing because she said he had started to move the island’s embattled police force in a more positive direction.
“I would have a sense of loss if this were to compromise (his job),” Cowden said.
Cowden also described Raybuck’s anti-Asian behavior as surprising considering his display of racial sensitivity during the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
The police chief attended two large protests held in solidarity with the killing of George Floyd last June, giving a speech at one of the events. Raybuck also encouraged his officers to attend and even participate in the protests — in uniform, if they wished.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Cowden said she was also pleased with Raybuck’s presentation to the County Council on its use-of-force policies.
“I have multiple opportunities to overlap him in a professional setting and I’ve never seen anything but tolerance and I have not seen inappropriate or disparaging behavior,” Cowden said. “But I don’t work in the building with (the police officers) and I don’t know what everyone experiences. I just know I haven’t seen it.”
More broadly, Cowden said Raybuck is a good listener who has been enthusiastic in his efforts to understand and try to fit into the Kauai community.
“I feel like the chief has done a very good job at recognizing that crazy isn’t a crime and being poor isn’t a crime,” Cowden said. “He has demonstrated compassion through his team and his policies to address the houseless community.”
Raybuck has also helped to address KPD’s difficulty with attrition and recruiting new cops, a problem for police departments across Hawaii.
When Raybuck took over as chief of the Kauai Police Department in April 2019 after both he and his wife retired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, KPD had 22 unfilled positions.
Today the force is down 12 officers, but when the current police training program ends in July the department expects that most, if not all, of the vacancies will be filled, according to KPD spokeswoman Coco Zickos.
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