Police commission to make decision on fate of embattled HPD chief

Critics say commission's Kealoha sessions should be made public
Published: Jan. 5, 2017 at 10:23 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 6, 2017 at 7:03 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Honolulu Police Commission will hold a closed-door executive session on Friday to determine the future of police chief Louis Kealoha with the Honolulu Police Department.

Hawaii News Now has learned that Kealoha will be present at the meeting to face the panel.

Kealoha, the city's highest ranking police official, has been HPD's Chief of Police since November 2009. He was placed on temporary leave late last month after receiving a target letter from the FBI as part of an ongoing public corruption case.

Commissioners decided on Wednesday to indefinitely extend Kealoha's leave of absence while they continued to discuss his fate.

The target letter, which was sent to Kealoha to inform him that he was the "target" of the FBI's investigation, required the chief to notify the department's professional standards office. Subjects of target letters have their police authority removed.

The issuance of a target letter came more than a year after the FBI began investigating Kealoha and his wife Katherine, a high-ranking deputy city prosecutor. Sources say that Kealoha and several other officers received the letters in the days following the guilty plea of former police officer Niall Silva, who lied under oath as part of a conspiracy to frame a relative of Katherine Kealoha for the theft of the mailbox from the Kealohas' home.

On Friday, however, members of the public won't be privileged to the meetings in which the police commission will decide Kealoha's fate. Commission leaders say they conduct closed-door sessions because the law requires secrecy, though others question that interpretation.

"There's nothing in the Hawaii Revised Statutes that requires secrecy. The 'Sunshine Law' permits a level of secrecy for personal issues, if they involve matters of privacy," said Brian Black, the executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center. "It allows for secrecy if there is attorney-client privilege, but that's why you all have a vote. You decide whether or not to invoke those provisions."

State senator Will Espero says that when it comes to the hiring, firing or suspension of the police chief, there needs to be more shared information.

"This is a public official, a high-ranking public official, paid with taxpayers dollars," said Espero. "This is something that belongs, to a degree, in the public domain."

Espero has frequently attempted to pass legislation surrounding police reform, including efforts to publish the names and records of disciplined police officers once internal investigations are complete. Espero believes the Kealoha proceedings could speed up legislative action that will increase transparency in the future.

"We certainly can revisit and see whether there are some changes needed within the 'Sunshine Law,' so that transparency and openness is paramount but privacy is also respected," said Espero.

Despite the criticism, the chair of the city council's Public Safety Committee says Kealoha's high-visibility post doesn't overrule the city's privacy laws.

"Chief Kealoha is still an employee, has the same rights [to privacy] as any other city employee," said Councilman Brandon Elefante.

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