Friday, September 9, 2016

Trying Times for Honolulu's Top Cop

When Officer Louis Kealoha (“Louie” as he’s known by friends and family) got the top job as chief of police for the Honolulu Police Department in 2009, hope and change was in the air. Perhaps it was left over from the historic rise and election of another Honoluluan—President Barack Obama. Perhaps everybody was eager for HPD to press the reset button, raise morale, and have more accountability with the public. Either way, everyone was excited about the chief, even if he didn’t have the same kind of experience as the other candidates for the job.
Kealoha grew up in Honolulu. Five years after graduating from high school (he went to Damien in case you’re wondering), he joined the force. It was 1983. He was on patrol in the city for thirteen years before moving through the various departments within the force.
Captain Kealoha skipped two ranks to become the administrative head of the biggest police department in our State. At his swearing in, his wife and deputy prosecuting attorney for the City, Katherine, told reporters that “family and friends are his first priority and I have to say all of the officers at HPD are included in his term as family.”
But family has got the Kealohas into real hot water—serious kine. One summer’s night, just before midnight, someone drove to their Kahala home and stole their mailbox. Seemed simple enough.
Katherine Kealoha, naturally, called the police. She told them that she reviewed their house’s surveillance footage and told them that the thief was her estranged uncle, Gerard Puana.
It just so happened that Uncle Gerard sued the Kealohas alleging elder abuse, fraud, and theft. Puana and his nonagenarian mother claim that they gave thousands of dollars to Katherine, their attorney relative to invest. They claim that she used large portions of the money as her own spending money.
Katherine vociferously denied these claims in court and in public. She told the press at the time that her uncle “had no money (zero) to give me, and his claim that he gave me large sums of cash is absurd. Gerard is no under criminal prosecution in federal court for stealing a mailbox, and is being defended by a public defender.”
She was right about the prosecution. Puana was arrested and prosecuted in federal court for destroying the mailbox. Things got even weirder when Chief Kealoha testified. He told the jury that his uncle-in-law had been arrested in a completely unrelated case—a big time, off-limits topic at trial.
The Court declared a mistrial and Puana was never convicted. Later, federal prosecutors met with Puana’s lawyer, dropped all charges against Puana, and asked FBI to investigate HPD’s handling of the whole thing.
Then the Police Commission got into it, sort of. The only oversight for the chief of police is the Police Commission—and independent group of civilians that has the power to investigate allegations of misconduct by police officers and evaluate Kealoha’s performance. The Commission also has the power to fire him.
Behind closed doors, the Commission met with Kealoha and in the end took no action against him. Commissioners told the press that it would yield to the federal investigation. That started a row in itself.
This year the Commission membership got a shakeup when former federal prosecutor, Loretta Sheehan, was appointed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell. She introduced herself to the public by demanding that her Commission start investigating the chief. She was immediately met with criticism within the City government.
Puana’s defense lawyer, Alexander Silvert, the same public defender, acknowledged the effort, but blasted the Commission in a press release issued last month.
Silvert told the press that after the mistrial, federal prosecutors dismissed the case against Puana “after we disclosed to them the evidence of police misconduct we had uncovered.” He criticized the Commission’s unwavering support for Kealoha and their failure to take Kealoha’s word. “One does not rely solely on the word of the fox to tell you whether he stole and ate the chicken from the henhouse,” he wrote.
Now, the Department of Justice has sent out a special prosecutor from San Diego to investigate the Kealohas and HPD. This week, the Kealohas hired their own defense attorney. Other cops are being summoned before a grand jury to participate in the investigation. Everyone is waiting to see what will become of the investigation.

It’s high drama in Honolulu. Reforming a police department is no easy task—even when the police want reform too. Remember, it was Kealoha who began his tenure with the goal of being more transparent and open. That seems like a long shot these days.