EXCLUSIVE: Embattled police department spending $100K to improve image

Published: Apr. 1, 2016 at 10:08 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 2, 2016 at 12:41 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Honolulu Police Department plans to spend more than $100,000 on a public relations firm over the next year to try to improve its image, even though it has two PR professionals on staff.

The contract comes as HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, a deputy city prosecutor, face an expanding federal criminal probe.

The department says the PR contract is aimed at helping it communicate more clearly and effectively.

But critics say it's too little and too late.

Meanwhile, several police officers who asked not be identified for fear of retribution say the contract is a waste of money, since the department has two, full-time employees in its public information office already.

"The department wouldn't need to hire a PR firm if the chief and his top brass were doing their job," said one police department veteran.

HPD signed a contract with Bennet Group Strategic Communications on March 18 that calls for the firm to provide a number of services, including research, branding advice, strategic planning and lots of training for leadership, public relations staff and officers.

The contract says HPD will pay the public relations firm about $125,000 over a one-year period. HPD also has the option of using the firm's services for short-term, special instances, such as for crisis communications, which costs $230 an hour.

Kitty Lagareta, who runs Communications Pacific, one of the state's largest public relations firms, said the decision to bring in an outside PR firm is probably a smart move.

"I don't think it's ever too late to start telling the truth, getting facts out, letting people know what's going on," she said.

"Sometimes people think if they don't say anything, it's better. But it's worse. And we've seen that. I think they probably should have done this quite a long time ago."

In a statement, HPD Deputy Chief Marie McCauley said the department is "working with Bennet Group to help us expand our team's capacity to communicate clearly and effectively to our community as we protect and serve."

Since Hawaii News Now first reported that Police Chief Louis Kealoha was the focus of a federal criminal investigation last fall, he has appeared less and less in the media. Instead, his deputy or other HPD brass do interviews and release media statements.

State Sen. Will Espero, who's been critical of HPD leadership, says bringing on a PR firm won't fix the bigger problems at HPD.

"You could spend $1 million on publicity and PR, but it's not going to change the way the public feels or the perception that they have as long as the status quo is not changed or improved," he said.

City Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi also questioned whether the money couldn't be better spent elsewhere in the department.

She noted that HPD has not hired PR firms in the past.

"I wonder about the need for the police department to have its own public relations firm and whether we can pool our resources," she said.

Kobayashi said she would ask HPD officials about the PR expenditure during a detailed budget review that starts next week.

Other veteran police employees told Hawaii News Now that the real question is whether top brass will take the advice of public relations professionals.

And they contend the real work of improving the department's image could be up to the next chief.

One longtime HPD officer said "The best PR for the department would be for the chief (Kealoha) to put himself on leave and temporarily step aside."

Many officers feel there's a double standard at the police department, where officers accused of wrongdoing are regularly put on paid leave.  But Kealoha has remained on the job even though he and his wife are the targets of the months-long federal criminal probe.  A federal grand jury has been meeting for months, looking into accusations of public corruption and civil rights violations at HPD, sources have told Hawaii News Now.

Kealoha has maintained he's done nothing wrong.

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