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Despite complaints and lawsuits, high-ranking ‘bully’ commander at HPD keeps getting promoted

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 5:51 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 16, 2021 at 5:13 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A battle is brewing within the Honolulu Police Department as members of the rank-and-file push back against one of their leaders, accusing him of retaliation, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

It’s rare for a single Honolulu police officer to speak publicly against command staff, but HNN has spoken to four officers along with one who is retired and the widow of another about their concerns with Assistant Chief Stephen Gerona, who keeps getting promoted despite a history of complaints.

In fact, in addition to being at the center of at least two lawsuits that prompted heavy taxpayer-funded settlements, there are at least a half dozen active complaints against Gerona filed with the city and federal Equal Employment Opportunity commissions.

There is a also pending lawsuit that was filed by Maile Rego, a detective who works under him.

“He’s a terror,” said Rego, who is currently on unpaid leave because of her battle with the department. “Everywhere he goes, a wrath of terror follows him.”

She added, “I’m on leave without pay because my employer isn’t providing me a safe workplace.”

Handling of toddler’s murder case prompted concerns

Rego is assigned to the Criminal Investigations Division, which falls under Gerona’s leadership.

In her lawsuit, Rego specifically describes the murder case of a toddler, Kytana Ancog, as the source of her conflict with Gerona. The 18-month old was reported missing on Feb. 10.

Rego was not assigned the case, but as a child abuse detective trained at both the state and federal levels she started looking into it.

The girl had been dropped off with her father, Travis Rodrigues, a convicted felon with a violent past. Rego wanted a MAILE AMBER Alert issued for the toddler and more assistance from the FBI because of its vast resources and technology.

But she says CID command staff ― under Gerona ― refused.

“It’s my professional opinion that we failed,” Rego said. “When you can’t find a vulnerable 18-month-old somewhere, common sense needs to kick in.”

Instead of listening to her suggestions, Rego was told the commanders were going to launch an investigation into her for “unauthorized computer access” because she started to work the case when it wasn’t assigned to her.

Rego’s supervisor, HPD Lt. Mark Matsusaka, stood up for her ― and soon faced heat, too.

“She’s extraordinarily passionate about her work to the point where I have to pull her back sometimes because she just wants to leap forward. Her heart is in the right place,” Matsusaka said.

“To see the department do what they’re doing I couldn’t not support her.”

Matsusaka said that brought retaliation from the command against him.

“After I began to speak on behalf of Detective Rego things dramatically changed and it was very, very fast. Suddenly, in the command’s eyes, I could not do anything right. "

An EEOC complaint he filed names Gerona as the person behind those actions.

Detectives flee CID under Gerona’s command

Gerona has only been head of CID since the beginning of this year.

In the first six months under his leadership, the department confirms, 29 detectives asked to transfer out of CID while only six requested to transfer in.

CID is one of HPD’s most important departments. It investigates crimes that include homicides, sex assaults, missing persons, child abuse and robberies.

“Losing experienced, trained personnel that are really good at their job and it’s going to affect criminal investigations. It’s going to affect prosecution of the cases,” Matsusaka said.

Gerona ended up in CID after multiple complaints were made at his previous assignment ― as a major at District 3, the Pearl City substation.

“He created a hostile work environment for me,” said a District 3 female officer, who did not want her name used in this story.

The officer said she was exposed to COVID-19 last year while on the job.

“I notified my supervisors. I notified the doctor. I was told to get tested. I was forced to stay home and wait for the results,” the officer said.

Back then, HPD allowed administrative time to be used for isolating. But she said Gerona wanted her to use her own sick time instead.

Her lieutenant defended her ― and was subsequently reassigned.

“He (Gerona) got real upset, saying she was trying to manipulate the system and she was trying to get paid for not being at work when all she did was do her job,” said the lieutenant, who did not want his name used. “I knew because he didn’t like her he was trying to cause her trouble.”

For standing up, the lieutenant said he then also suffered harassment and retaliation from Gerona. “He ended up putting me in an administrative position which is a less desirable position,” he said.

‘At what point do taxpayers have to stop paying for his infractions?’

Retired HPD Lt. Deeann Koanui sued the police department and won a $500,000 settlement in 2019.

At the center of the case: Gerona’s actions.

She said Gerona went after her when she declined to pass unqualified recruits at the police academy in his efforts to fill vacancies. “To me, if they didn’t pass the exam ― the 30 push-ups, 30 sit-ups ― I wouldn’t pass them and he wanted me to,” Koanui told Hawaii News Now.

She added that taxpayers will pay the price for Gerona’s behavior ― and because the department’s leadership protects him.

“He was involved in another lawsuit so I was his second lawsuit,” she said.

“That lawsuit settled for a million, my lawsuit was half a million, at what point do the taxpayers have to stop paying for his infractions, for his bullying tactics?”

‘It’s been really rough’

“Bully” is a term the officers all used to describe Gerona.

The widow of an HPD sergeant said Gerona also picked on her husband.

“It’s been really rough,” said the woman, who did not want her name used. “I get up every day and the only reason I get up every day is because we have a daughter. A 1-year-old.”

She said Gerona denied her late husband special duty jobs on his days off when their daughter was born last year. And this year, she said, Gerona lumped him into a broad investigation for COVID enforcement overtime abuse because he was part of a team of about a dozen officers.

She said that investigation made her husband, who had nearly 20 years on the force, fear he wouldn’t be able to provide for the family.

“I kept trying to tell him or convince him that we’ll be OK, even if he lost his job. I kept telling him you only got five more years, just hang in there,” she said.

On May 1, he killed himself. His heartbroken wife believes he did it so she could collect his pension and benefits for her and their daughter.

Higher-ups ignored complaints

Why does Gerona, with his history, keep rising through HPD’s ranks?

All those who made official federal complaints or filed lawsuits against Gerona said they had no other choice because they were ignored by higher-ups, especially former HPD Chief Susan Ballard.

She and Gerona were recruit classmates and apparently very protective of one another.

But now that Ballard is gone, the officers want to know why he remains in a position of power and who in the command continues to protect and promote him, most recently to acting assistant chief.

Hawaii News Now did reach out to Stephen Gerona through the Honolulu Police Department offering both a chance to explain his actions and the lawsuit against him. He did not respond.

In a statement, HPD said that they are cooperating with the EEOC investigations but can’t comment further due to the confidential nature of the complaints.

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