HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu police Chief Louis Kealoha faced heated questioning Wednesday about allegations of police misconduct and several high-profile incidents in which officers found guilty of abuse of power were never punished.
"Who is the ultimate authority? Who decides that after an internal investigation that the officer has done nothing wrong and there should be no discipline?" asked Honolulu police commissioner Loretta Sheehan during a meeting Wednesday morning.
"That would be the chief," answered Deputy Chief Clay Okimoto, as Kealoha nodded.
Sheehan, the newest police commissioner, was the only member of the civilian oversight committee to question Kealoha regarding multiple media reports about a culture of leniency when it comes to disciplining his officers, even in cases when the commission has found wrongdoing.
"Officer misconduct in any form is unacceptable," Kealoha told the commission. "We understand that it undermines public trust and confidence. It does portray the entire force in a negative light, and we're doing what we can do reduce and address our misconduct."
He added, "We value the public's trust and know that trust is earned. As a department, we're going to continue to work hard to earn and keep the public's trust and confidence in their police department."
Throughout the meeting, though, Sheehan demanded answers from HPD's top brass on several recent incidents that have given the department black eyes.
She had several questions, for instance, on a recent $4.7 million settlement with three members of the department, who alleged they faced racial and gender discrimination at the hands of a superior.
During the commission meeting, Sheehan read from a lieutenant's deposition in the case, in which he called a Hispanic officer "a beaner, a senorita, a wetback."
'What message does that send to our community when you exonerate someone who has admitted to using these kinds of slurs?" asked Sheehan.
Kealoha replied, "Like the assistant chief said earlier, we did find him in violation of the standard of conduct but that was turned around by the (city) Department of Human Resources. All of these cases that we have, we take seriously, but it's not in isolation. All of these decisions are based on policies and procedures, along with the collective bargaining that we have. Also we have to comply with the federal, state and city employment laws. So it's not me on a whim. It's made also in consultation with the city HR."
Sheehan also sought clarification about the officer at the center of a discrimination lawsuit, in which a lesbian couple alleged they were forcibly removed from a Pupukea Foodland after he found them kissing in an aisle. The city later settled with the couple.
Kealoha bristled at the line of questioning, saying the commission meeting wasn't the appropriate time to be asking questions about the case.
"I don't think this case should be on trial right now, because we don't have the total facts," he said. "I think it's unfair of us that we answer about this case when we don't have the information in front of us. If you do have questions and you want to give us those questions later and give us the opportunity to review the case before we answer. We're just recollecting what's going on."
Sheehan responded, "Sure, I understand that, but you were put on notice that we would be discussing media coverage and this was covered in the papers."
To that Kealoha said, "We don't want to put this case here on trial. If you do have questions that want to get back into the weeds of these situations, please give us the questions so that we can have the opportunity to answer them, but on a fair playground."
Kealoha was also grilled about the ongoing federal investigation into allegations of public corruption and civil rights violations against him and his wife, Katherine, a deputy city prosecutor.
This comes one day after Hawaii News Now reported that target letters are now going out to current and former police officers. The letters are from the federal prosecutor and are a key indicator that there are multiple suspects who could be offered deals to testify against the Kealohas.
"We've become aware in the last couple of days of a number of officers receiving target letters from the Department of Justice informing them that the Department of Justice has substantial evidence that they have engaged in criminal activity and they should retain lawyers," Sheehan told Kealoha. "Have any of those officers been ROPA'd?" she asked, inquiring whether their police powers have been removed.
Kealoha replied, "We have not received any word of any of our officers receiving target letters. We have a policy that requires them that in the event that there's going to be any legal action taken against them in their duties, that they notify us. We have not been notified of any officers receiving target letters."
The two then engage in the following exchange:
Kealoha then could not respond to Sheehan's inquiries about whether officers who do receive target letters should have their police powers removed:
Sheehan: "When do we know that someone should be ROPA'd at the Honolulu Police Department?"
Kealoha: "Well, basically it's when we feel they can't go on duty. They can't go on the road. So we take away their police powers."
Sheehan: "Have you made any decision about what you're going to do if you receive a target letter?"
Kealoha: "For me? I haven't approached that yet."
Hawaii News Now was told there is no clear policy on when an officer's police powers should be removed because of an ongoing investigation.
The next Honolulu Police Commission meeting is set for Sept. 21.