When Susan Ballard was chosen to be Honolulu’s police chief in 2017, there were high hopes her leadership would mean a positive change for the department.
In the wake of the corruption scandal led by her predecessor Louis Kealoha – who is scheduled to go to prison this summer – Ballard pitched “a new beginning” and promised to restore trust by promoting transparency and accountability.
“I’m responsible for everything that happens in the police department,” she said in a 2018 interview with Civil Beat.
At first, Honolulu’s first female chief was complimented by the mayor and Honolulu Police Commission, which consistently gave her high marks. Even the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii gave her kudos for her moves to shake up a department.
Three-and-a-half years in, though, Ballard often finds herself on the defensive.
Her annual performance evaluation, to be discussed at Wednesday’s police commission meeting, may not be as positive as previous ones. And commissioners’ feedback will set the tone for the remainder of Ballard’s five-year term, which ends in the fall of 2022.
The evaluation could touch on numerous issues that have occurred or come to light in the last year.
HPD is solving a smaller proportion of crimes than ever before, according to state and federal data. At the same time, it has been spending a record amount on overtime, even before the pandemic, with some officers doubling their income and padding their retirements.
Honolulu officers disproportionately arrest and use force on Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians and Black people.
During Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, Ballard directed her officers to go on a ticketing spree to enforce COVID-19 emergency rules that resulted in tens of thousands of people getting criminal citations. Homeless people bore the brunt of it, data showed, but even the U.S. Surgeon General got a ticket. Ultimately, the cases were dismissed en masse by prosecutors.
The U.S. Treasury is currently auditing the department’s spending of CARES Act money on ATVs, trucks and a robot dog. And millions more were spent on a police-run tent city for homeless people that was sitting mostly empty.
As for ensuring another Kealoha scandal could never happen again, Ballard’s department hasn’t done much, she admitted last year. Her comments followed a city audit that found HPD isn’t doing enough to prevent officer misconduct.
Though recruiting was a point of focus for Ballard, the number of department vacancies is worse than it was when the chief started. There were about 260 in her first year. Now, there are 291 openings for sworn officers, the department said last week.
Josh Wisch, executive director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said Ballard has failed to confront the systemic issues in her department, including racial disparities, overtime abuse and the criminalization of poverty.
“If a new chief started tomorrow, those problems would still exist,” he said. “The major disappointment with Chief Ballard is that instead of speaking out about those types of problems at HPD, she seems focused on just pretending they don’t actually exist.”
Ballard declined to be interviewed for this story.
Within just a few months of Ballard’s appointment as chief, she was already making waves and observers were impressed.
“Her position was: ‘I’m an open book. You ask me for information, and I’ll tell you everything I know,’” said Steve Levinson, a retired judge who was a member of the Honolulu Police Commission that hired Ballard in 2017.
She won praise when she held a press conference to condemn the behavior of four officers who were allegedly involved in forcing a homeless man to lick a public bathroom urinal – a case for which she stripped the officers of their policing powers and notified the FBI.
The new chief also revamped the Criminal Intelligence Unit, the secretive squad that had been abused by her predecessor. She reassigned the existing officers, renamed it the Intelligence Enforcement Unit and placed a deputy chief in charge.
Leroy Contee, a retired HPD officer who has known Ballard for about 30 years, said Ballard “cleaned house.”
“She didn’t have that baggage of owing anyone within the department,” he said.
Then-police commissioner Loretta Sheehan said spirits were up in the department.
“When I would walk into headquarters the mood was suspicious and glum,” Sheehan said then. “But now the officers are happy. They have a leader with integrity and competency.”
Sheehan was not available for an interview for this story.
Ballard’s first performance review was largely positive.
The evaluation of her 2018 performance applauded her for unifying the police force and for presenting a five-year plan that aimed to tackle understaffing, technological upgrades and social issues like domestic violence and homelessness. Members also commended her for embracing the idea that police officers should be guardians, not warriors.
Union leaders at the time told commissioners that fewer grievances were being filed, that she meted out discipline fairly and that morale was up.
The commission’s report found that Ballard had met or exceeded all expectations. The following year’s review was also primarily complimentary, aside from some concerns about the budget.
“Chief Ballard is a respected and effective leader, inside and outside the Department,” the commission wrote.
Then-mayor Kirk Caldwell said in an interview with Civil Beat that Honolulu is fortunate to have Ballard. She held officers accountable, even if it meant rubbing people the wrong way, he said.
“Sometimes a chief has to make difficult decisions that are not popular,” he said. “I believe she still to this day does what’s right over what’s popular, and I like that. I think that shows strong leadership in a force that needed a lot of strong leadership three-and-a-half years ago.”
Somewhere along the way, Ballard started to clam up, according to Levinson.
“Increasingly, the chief seemed to become less inclined to be an open book on subjects that were uncomfortable,” he said. “It got to the point that she simply refused to give us any information.”
Commissioners were temporarily blocked from reading HPD policies, he said. And Levinson said Ballard wasn’t forthright when it came to explaining her decision-making on denying gun permit applications.
“It’s my understanding that kind of relationship has persisted,” Levinson said. “At this point, I don’t think she particularly cares what her relationship is with the commission.”
Dissension has been growing within the department as well, according to multiple sources.
The chief has been in the uncomfortable position lately of responding to anonymous complaints from inside her department sent to the police commission and the media. One letter accused her of “gross mismanagement and malfeasance.”
She recently apologized after sources in the department leaked details about a supposed performance quota for patrol officers – a plan that she said she didn’t authorize.
And her one-time ally John McCarthy, a deputy chief, has been sidelined – allegedly missing in action for several weeks with no signs of returning any time soon, multiple sources said. Ballard’s already small circle is shrinking, they said.
Through it all, Ballard has remained aloof. Despite her early pledge to embrace transparency and accountability, she often brushes off criticism or doesn’t address it at all.
The low crime-solving rates? She said the numbers aren’t reliable, even though they came from HPD. On racial disparities, she said racial profiling doesn’t happen in her department and that there’s nothing HPD can do.
She has continued to defend the widely unpopular pandemic ticketing effort, the dubious CARES expenditures under audit and the lack of action to prevent misconduct. And she typically offers those responses at public meetings she is obliged to attend.
Answering questions from the media is a different story.
Press conferences are rare, and individual interviews with the press almost never happen.
Recently, the chief was criticized for releasing a prerecorded video to defend herself against officer complaints instead of making herself available to reporters. After that, she offered phone interviews to local media outlets: One reporter per outlet with a 10-minute time limit.
Looking back, Ballard was the right person to transition the department out of a dark period, Levinson said.
“When we were trying to replace a corrupt police chief and restore the morale of a department in tatters, we didn’t need a philosopher king or queen. We needed an earth mother: Someone who had a big heart and who cared, who wanted the department to do as well as possible and would be a role model,” he said. “I think she was very good at that.”
But she may not be able to carry HPD into the future, he said.
“I think the department is facing problems that are complex, that are difficult to solve, and that require a degree of critical thinking that I don’t think she’s up to,” he said.
Recently, numerous officers have reported that morale in the department is low. Some have even expressed nostalgia for the Kealoha administration.
In a 2020 department survey, 685 respondents were asked how often they feel the administration – assistant chiefs and above – provide effective leadership to the department. The results, obtained by Civil Beat, were mixed: 40% said usually, about 30% said sometimes, 19% said always, 9% said rarely and 2% said never.
Officers have reported frustration with what they perceive to be favoritism in promotions, including several officers who used to work with Ballard on the central receiving desk; anger that the chief was reportedly considering changing officers’ work schedules; and annoyance about mixed messages regarding performance quotas.
In general, they report a lack of clear communication from the top.
In addition, there are dozens of officers who received minor discipline for working more COVID-19 enforcement overtime hours than Ballard allowed. Officers have privately insisted they were given permission from supervisors to work those shifts, and Ballard confirmed that at a recent police commission meeting.
Nevertheless, the chief said they broke the rules, and she needs to hold them accountable. Officers say it’s unfair.
City Council Chair Tommy Waters has also ratcheted up scrutiny of the department. He asked the chief tough questions last year about preventing misconduct and recently requested an audit of department overtime spending.
In a statement, he gave Ballard credit for identifying problems within her department, giving candid answers to questions and voicing support for programs that would have crisis workers instead of police respond to incidents involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
However, Waters said there are several critical areas the chief needs to improve.
Waters noted that the department cleared only about 30% of violent crimes and 6% of property crimes in 2018 and 2019, according to HPD data from November. That’s an overall clearance rate of 7.8%. The department needs to do better, he said.
He also took issue with the chief’s decision not to implement a conflict of interest policy after taxpayers paid out $150,000 to settle a conflict of interest lawsuit.
Overall, Waters said the chief needs to make herself and her department more accountable to the public.
“This year, Chief Ballard has sent assistant chiefs to represent her in front of the Council and has been sending video messages instead of doing live interviews with the media,” he said.
“What is most troubling to me on a personal level however, is that when members of our community are being murdered in their homes, the Chief needs to be out there reassuring the public that HPD is on the case and working diligently to bring these criminals to justice.”
Civil Beat requested interviews with Council Public Safety Chair Heidi Tsuneysohi and State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers President Malcolm Lutu but did not get a response.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi – who, as a candidate, was endorsed by the police union and spoke highly of Ballard – hasn’t said much about the chief since being sworn in. His office said he was not available to be interviewed for this story.
Caldwell still sings Ballard’s praises. He commended her for her response to protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd, noting that her officers responded to demonstrations peacefully and that she proactively initiated a review of HPD’s use-of-force policy.
He also noted the compassion she showed when two of her officers were killed in a shooting on Hibiscus Drive in early 2020.
“I think she’s shown moral and ethical leadership at the department during extremely difficult times,” he said.
However, he said he would encourage her to “continue to be transparent.”
“Even though at times it’s difficult, she should continue to do that,” he said.
From the beginning, Ballard had a reputation for telling it like it is, Contee said. She may feel now that being open does more harm than good.
“Once you get your hand smacked, you don’t want to put your hand out anymore,” Contee said.
Still, Contee believes that Ballard has made a positive impact. For example, he said she beefed up the Peer Support Unit, a volunteer group of current and former officers who act as an emotional support network after officers experience trauma on the job.
“She keeps the department in her heart,” he said. “I really believe that.”
In the end, Contee said Ballard was never going to be the perfect chief.
“She’s done the best she can with the cards she was dealt,” he said. “They were looking for magic, and it just doesn’t work that way.”
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