Expert: Police commissioners' lack of law enforcement experience a concern

None of city police commissioners have law enforcement experience
Published: Oct. 20, 2015 at 10:28 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 20, 2015 at 10:51 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Just a day before the Honolulu Police Commission meets to begin discussing whether it should suspend Police Chief Louis Kealoha while he's under federal investigation, one critic questions whether they're qualified to do their jobs.

University of Hawaii Professor Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist, said while the seven-member Police Commission is made up of well-meaning volunteers, there's a big problem: not one of them has experience working in law enforcement or the criminal justice field.

The Honolulu Police Commission has the power to hire and fire the police chief and also investigates citizen complaints against the police department and its officers.

Its chair is Ron Taketa, a longtime union leader. Its vice chair is Cha Thompson, who runs the Polynesian entertainment company Tihati productions with her husband.

Another police commissioner is Eddie Flores, better known as president of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.

"That's not the kind of background you expect to see if, again, you're going to talk about credible and robust accountability," Chesney-Lind said.

She is concerned that not one of the seven police commissioners has a professional background in law enforcement or criminal justice. That's in contrast to other commissions, like the board that oversees complaints against the New York City Police Department.

The New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board has among its members "defense attorneys, you have community activists, you have a police officer, you have other people with criminal law background, attorneys represented in pretty large numbers," she said.

Honolulu's police commissioners, meanwhile, said their panel should not be made up of ex-law enforcement and lawyers, but community leaders.

"We take our jobs very seriously," Thompson, the vice chairwoman of the commission, told Hawaii News Now. "We are tough on the cops. I think we do very well."

Singer Jimmy Borges spent three years as a police commissioner and disagrees with Chesney-Lind's concern about a lack of law enforcement experience.

"The most important criteria is intelligence," Borges said. "The mayor should make sure that the person that they're appointing cares enough about that to do the job properly."

Borges said he and Thompson resigned from the commission in 2006 because then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann had appointed several commissioners who the pair believed weren't up for the job.

"You can't just appoint somebody who's a pal but basically whose IQ is closer to his belt size," Borges said. "There were appointees that were being put in there that really weren't qualified. We felt they weren't qualified."

Thompson was later re-appointed to the commission by former Mayor Peter Carlisle, beginning another term in January of 2013.

Borges admitted it might not be bad to have one or two members of Honolulu's seven-member commission have legal backgrounds.

"I think one lawyer would be fine. Maybe one ex-policeman who's been out for x amount of time. I think that makes a big difference, because then you don't have buddies that are still there," Borges said.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell has appointed just one of the seven police commissioners, a spokesman said. The other six were originally appointed by Hannemann and Carlisle.

Caldwell's spokesman said, "The mayor will certainly take the suggestions of Professor Lind and others into consideration."

Chesney-Lind said Honolulu's commission lacks the depth to hold the police department accountable.

"What we've got is a group of people that are put together to support and be cheerleaders for the Honolulu Police Department instead of an organization that's put together to really oversee and make transparent the public's interest in accountability," she said.

Sources have told Hawaii News Now that Kealoha, the police chief, and his wife Katherine, a high-ranking city prosecutor, are the focus of a federal criminal probe. The FBI is investigating whether they framed Katherine Kealoha's uncle in the alleged theft of a mailbox from their home and had Honolulu police officers assist in the frame job.

Sources said subpoenas are expected to go out shortly and a federal grand jury will begin meeting in November as part of the probe that's being coordinated by a special federal prosecutor brought in by the Justice Department from San Diego.

Kealoha has remained on the job, angering police officers who said any other officer would immediately be put on paid leave if they were under federal investigation, with their badge, gun and police powers suspended during the investigation.

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