Honolulu residents may have the opportunity to vote on a number of police reform measures during this year’s general election.

Introduced by Honolulu Council Chair Tommy Waters, the ballot questions would address the Honolulu Police Department’s values and the police chief’s qualifications. Voters may also choose whether to change the makeup of the Honolulu Police Commission and give the civilian body more power to oversee the department and its chief. 

The answers could amend the city’s governing charter. But first, four resolutions outlining the proposals would need to be approved by a supermajority of Honolulu City Council – six of nine members – before making it to ballots this November. 

Honolulu Police Department HPD patch.
Public sentiment towards HPD is mixed, according to a recent survey. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The proposed changes come as the Honolulu Police Commission works to hire a successor to retired chief Susan Ballard and grapples with years of criticism that it hasn’t done enough to provide guidance and oversight to the police department. 

The police department itself has struggled with the fallout of scandal. Following the conviction of former chief Louis Kealoha for corruption – specifically, using police resources to frame an innocent man – Ballard admitted that the department hadn’t done much to prevent a similar debacle from happening again. 

Overall, the reputation of the Honolulu police force is mixed, according to the latest National Community Survey. Less than half of respondents rated the police positively, a much lower rating than other jurisdictions across the country, the survey found. And more than half of survey takers reported that the city does a poor job of crime prevention.  

Waters’ proposed amendments demand more of the police chief, the department and the police commission.

“Especially after what happened with Chief Kealoha and numerous lawsuits that we at the council have settled, and high-publicity shootings, I think it’s important to work on policing to make it more transparent, more accountable and to gain public trust,” Waters said in an interview. 

Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters endorses Ikaika Anderson for the office of Lt. Governor at Kailua Beach Park.
Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters has been a critic of the island police department. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The proposals are already getting pushback from the police officers’ union. 

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers said in written testimony that it strongly opposes the changes and that they will only make it harder for HPD to fill its vacant positions.

Carla Allison, a member of the volunteer advocacy group Honolulu Police Commission Task Force, said she doesn’t see any of the suggestions as radical. 

It’s trying to have a lot more transparency and build trust with the community,” she said. 

Whether any of the proposals will actually make it to the ballot at all is unclear. 

So far, City Councilwoman Andria Tupola, who chairs the council’s legal matters committee, has only put one of the resolutions on the council’s agenda – a measure pertaining to the Police Commission’s membership. 

And at a meeting on Tuesday, she said it needs work. 

According to the city clerk, council members would have to approve the resolutions by July 6 for them to make it onto this year’s ballot.

Police Commission Shakeup Advances

For years, the Honolulu Police Commission has been made up of political insiders and campaign donors appointed by the mayor. 

Resolution 22-29 would alter the membership of the seven-seat volunteer group, which is currently charged with hiring and firing the police chief and overseeing HPD.

2021 Honolulu Police Commission portraits at HPD main station.
For years, the Honolulu Police Commission’s membership has been heavy on lawyers and prominent business leaders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Under the proposal, the commission would need to include, at a minimum, one former member of a law enforcement agency, someone who works in social work or behavioral health, someone with experience working with at-risk youth and one attorney licensed in Hawaii. 

It would also require that three commissioners be appointed by the council on an alternating basis. 

Waters said he appreciates “our men and women in blue” but noted at the meeting that the council has been in the position of approving millions of dollars worth of legal settlements over alleged police misconduct. 

“Police reforms starts with a good police commission and a good chief,” he said. 

The chair noted that several of Mayor Rick Blangiard’s picks for the commission have been met with skepticism.

One former HPD officer, Ben Mahi, backed out of the nomination process after conflict of interest concerns regarding his partner, who was still working for HPD. Then Larry Ignas, a former officer from the mainland, withdrew after he stated in a council meeting that he didn’t believe racial discrimination exists in Hawaii. The mayor’s third pick, Ann Botticelli, was confirmed, but not without criticism from social justice advocates.  

Makaha resident Lee Curran said at the council committee meeting on Tuesday that increasing the diversity of the commission will promote public trust and confidence in law enforcement. 

But some council members had concerns. Council Vice-Chair Esther Kiaaina said she would like more time to consider what commissioners’ qualifications should be. 

Councilman Brandon Elefante questioned the proposed requirement to set aside one seat for a former law enforcement officer, given the community’s concerns about Mahi’s nomination. 

“There could be challenges and concerns because of the relationship that person may have with the current, existing structure,” he said. 

Robert Cavaco
SHOPO President Bobby Cavaco said the union strongly opposes the proposed charter amendments. SHOPO

To the contrary, SHOPO President Bobby Cavaco said in a letter to the council that the commission should have three or four former law enforcement officers so that the group has subject matter expertise. 

The Honolulu Police Commission also raised doubts about the proposal. In written testimony, the commission said that creating new requirements for nominees could make it harder for the city to find volunteers to serve in those positions. 

Tupola said she worried that allowing the council to appoint some members of the police commission would politicize the body, creating the perception that some members report to the mayor and some to the council. 

The West Oahu representative also questioned the need for additional requirements for commissioners, including that they have demonstrated empathy and lack a criminal record related to violence or dishonesty. Those elements should be a given and should already be part of the city’s background check process, Tupola said. 

“I am going to move it forward, but I think we need to amend it,” she said. 

Should The Chief Be A College Graduate?

Three other resolutions have passed first reading and are pending in the committee chaired by Tupola, whose husband is an HPD officer. 

One of them has to do with the qualifications of the police chief.

Honolulu Police officers wait along Kapahulu Avenue before the Aloha Freedom Coalition march starts from the Honolulu Zoo.
The last three police chiefs were highly educated. A proposed charter amendment would make that a requirement. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Resolution 22-30 would mandate that chief candidates have a bachelor’s degree, a commitment to modern policing, training in de-escalation and experience in strategic planning. In addition, the chief could have no criminal convictions related to violence or dishonesty and no history of bias. 

The city charter currently only requires chiefs to have five years of training and experience in law enforcement work, including at least three years in a “responsible administrative capacity.”

If the change is approved, the impact may not be felt for years. It wouldn’t take effect until January 2023, which would likely be too late to apply to Ballard’s successor. 

The police union opposes the bachelor’s degree requirement because it believes it would exclude many qualified officers, Cavaco said in testimony.  

“A bachelor’s degree does not make a police chief,” he wrote. “It is the practical and real life experiences serving as a police officer on the streets and in the different divisions that lays the foundation, develops an officer, and provides the required experience to rise through the chain of command.” 

The last three police chiefs – Ballard, Kealoha and Boisse Correa – all had both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

Resolution 22-30 would also add “accountability, transparency and public service” into the Honolulu Police Department’s statement of policy; add “integrity and empathy” to the standards required of police recruits; and require regular public updates to the community through “open and honest communication.” 

In addition it would require annual training to inform officers of modern methods of policing that protect officer safety and improve police-community relations, but Cavaco said officers are already required to attend annual training. 

Under current law, the police commission can only hire chiefs and fire or suspend them during a five-year appointment. Under Resolution 22-28, the commission would be able to censure chiefs and could suspend them with or without pay. 

That measure would also turn the commission’s current arms-length supervisory role into more hands-on oversight. Currently, the commission reviews the chief’s five-year plan for the department and can make recommendations. Resolution 22-28 would allow commissioners to reject it and require a new one. 

Notably, the resolution strikes an existing provision that states the commission cannot “interfere in any way with the administrative affairs of the department.” 

SHOPO has a big problem with that, calling such potential interference “a step too far.” 

“In our view, it is impossible to fully understand the day to day demands, pressures, emotions and stressors that our officers must deal with if you have not walked in our shoes,” Cavaco wrote. “That is something the appointed Police Chief understands and is entrusted to handle.” 

Make Your Voice Heard

Lastly, Resolution 22-31 would expand the commission’s responsibilities, requiring it to submit its annual report not only to the mayor and the council but also to the chief. 

That report would need to include budgetary and policy recommendations made by the commission. After the commission made a recommendation, the chief would be required to file a written report on its implementation or lack thereof. 

Regarding public complaints to the commission about HPD, Resolution 22-31 requires the chief to submit a report to the commission, the mayor and the City Council. 

Blangiardi said this week that the proposals feel like an “overreach.” 

The mayor said he’s been public about his frustrations with how long it’s taking to hire a new police chief, and he’s not interested in making the process any harder. 

“Leadership in that department is really important,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is start to complicate it more than perhaps it already has been.” 

Blangiardi said he plans to meet with Waters to discuss the city’s public safety needs and he hopes to learn more about Waters’ proposals. 

“At first blush, at first reading, it doesn’t seem necessary to me,” he said. 

According to Waters though, the resolutions don’t need the mayor’s support. Approved charter amendment resolutions go straight from the council to voters.

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