Loretta Sheehan came into the Honolulu Police Commission a month ago, fully aware that not everyone agrees with her stance: that the commission has broad powers to investigate anything that seems amiss at the Honolulu Police Department. This hasn’t stopped her from being outspoken about it, however, and at a time of some turmoil at HPD.
The FBI is probing Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, over allegations of corruption and civil rights violations. The headlines have chronicled various cases of misconduct by rank-and-file officers, and the fact that many will never be identified publicly, thanks to a statute protecting officers’ privacy.
The New York-born attorney, 55, has a long career of close contacts with Honolulu police. In 1985 she moved here and was hired as a deputy by then-City Prosecutor Charles Marsland. After a decade as a prosecutor, Sheehan worked with the Office of the U.S. Attorney under Steve Alm.
But most recently she’s transitioned to civil law at Davis Levin Livingston. She’s also been honored with a Jefferson Award for her advocacy work in domestic violence and serves on the advisory council of the Domestic Violence Action Center.
She and her former husband — Matt Matsunaga, a former state legislator and the son of the late U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga — have two grown daughters attending Stanford University, one undergraduate, one in law school.
Sheehan said the commission has had several years working with the chief, has seen a lot of his good work and has evaluated him positively; they don’t necessarily “have the jaundiced eye of an outsider,” she acknowledged.
But she praised the chairman, Ron Taketa, for being open to more public questioning by the commission into police issues.
“They’re not stuck in one way of doing things,” she said. “We’re clearly taking a new path now. And so I think that change is very, very possible.
“Likely we’re all responding to events, and to the voice of the public,” Sheehan added. “The public has made its voice heard. And that’s who we represent.”
QUESTION: What were your thoughts in deciding on the appointment to the Honolulu Police Commission?
ANSWER: I was becoming increasingly concerned with what I was reading in the papers, and seeing on the TV news, about the police department’s settlements that we’re going through, and about the investigation into the chief of police. Pretty much, that’s why I decided to do it, and thought maybe that I could bring new skills to the police commission.
Q: Because of your work with law enforcement?
A: Yeah. I thought that maybe I could bring some of my legal training and some of my familiarity with the domestic violence community …
Q: With all that’s going on, you didn’t have any misgivings, then?
A: This is my home, this is my community. I wanted to help.
Q: There’s been so much news on police, nationally especially. What were your impressions of this particular police department and its challenges, on the whole?
A: Well, from the outside looking in, I have a very high opinion of police officers and the job they do. From my experience as a prosecutor working with officers, I have a deep love and respect for the Honolulu Police Department.
My concern is that the police department possibly isn’t running as well as it could be.
Q: What aspect of management are we talking about? Are we talking about disciplinary management?
A: For example, I was concerned with the (Sgt. Shermon) Dowkin case, the case brought by Sgt. Dowkin, (former) Officer (Federico) Delgadillo and Officer (Cassandra Bennett) Huihui. that was the one that just recently settled for $4.7 million.
I was concerned because the allegation by the plaintiffs was that there was a refusal to provide backup and support for those officers because they were specifically African-American and a person of Mexican ancestry.
And when there was an internal HPD investigation, and Officer Huihui, a female, was interviewed, she agreed; she felt absolutely, they were being denied backup and support from their lieutenants, based upon race.
And what she discovered was after she gave that testimony, her supervisors stopped giving her support and backup, called “icing out”…
So, while I think that our police department has escaped some of the problems of the mainland police departments, we can’t get complacent. If there are issues, even if they pale in comparison to Chicago or Los Angeles or Ferguson, we still have to be vigilant, to make sure we are doing the best job we possibly can.
Q: Do you think this is a universal aspect of law enforcement, a tendency to circle the wagons?
A: That binary thinking — that if you’re not with me, you’re against me — is very common in law enforcement. It’s very common in law.
Q: Why do you suppose that is? Can you venture a guess?
A: I suppose because, in life, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. And a great strength of the police department is being an authority, and being the ones we turn to for protection.
And so they are used to being in charge. They are used to telling people what to do, and so therefore when they are challenged, it’s anathema, they are so unused to it that they can react very badly.
Q: Did you see some of that in the domestic violence cases?
A: No, actually my experience with police in the area of domestic violence, my personal experience, has been very, very good. By and large, the vast majority of officers respond correctly, respond with compassion, they do what they can, they are troubled by the crime, and frustrated. …
There are stories that Nanci (Kreidman, Domestic Violence Action Center CEO) has shared with me of officers … (who) respond to the home, for example, of another police officer and they refuse to make an arrest, they tried to discourage the woman. …
I never had that experience, but I absolutely believe they happen. …
Q: How do you view the role of the Police Commission? You don’t manage the police department.
A: Correct. We are the auditor, we’re the audit committee of the chief of police. So we can’t be the chief of police’s friend. We cannot be the chief of police’s colleague. We have to be his or her auditor. So we cannot micromanage HPD, but we do have to keep a close eye on the quality of the management of HPD.
Q: And how do you do that? Information gathering, I mean.
A: Yeah. You look to best business practices. You look to how businesses, corporations conduct their evaluations. Businesses do these things called “split-level evaluations,” “360 evaluations,” where they seek input from employees at all levels to evaluate the CEO.
The audit committee is permitted to read whatever records they choose to read, question whoever they choose to question, to speak with outside agencies — for example, FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS — to interview all of them to see how effective they believe the chief is being. …
Q: What is your take on identification of officers in disciplinary cases? Do you think it needs to be more public?
A: Right now, it’s state law that we don’t get to know anything about officer discipline.
I personally think that greater transparency would help to keep track of what’s going on at HPD. I think greater transparency would promote public trust, because when officers make mistakes, for the public to see that there is correct and adequate discipline meted out by the department, that clearly sends the message that the department takes it seriously and truly does have a zero-tolerance policy.
When it’s all clouded in mystery, and HPD is simply the fortress on the hill that we don’t get to enter, that breeds public mistrust.
Q: The union argues that there are privacy interests of the officers. Do you see any line that needs to be drawn more vividly to protect privacy?
A: No, I think that they can be treated like other professions.
Q: So you would say there is no particular reason for that statutory protection that they have?
A: Not that I’m aware of.
The argument’s usually made that the reason why they have to have confidentiality is because they deal with fast-moving situations, they have to make decisions in the heat of the moment and it’s not fair to judge them in that way.
But while I recognize that that can be a mitigating factor in misconduct, that doesn’t indicate to me that we should keep everything a secret.
Q: With the current investigation of the chief, what concerns you most? What are you wanting to see resolved?
A: This has been a topic of pretty vigorous debate at the police commission. Some police commissioners view our powers very narrowly; I tend to see our powers are pretty broad.
We don’t know how the federal investigation is going to end. We don’t know if it’s going to end in indictment or not. I believe as a citizen oversight committee, I believe we have a duty to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. We now know that there are allegations of wrongdoing. …
We know that the Ethics Commission’s done an investigation. Under Chapter 92F we could request all of those records, provided we maintain the same level of confidentiality, we could read what the Ethics Commission did in their investigation. We could read the police reports. …
Some of the commissioners feel that it’s not a judicious use of time and resources when it appears that the FBI is investigating. And I totally hear that argument; I understand that.
But, at the end of the day, we don’t know if there’s going to be an indictment. We can’t wait for the FBI to resolve this. We should be taking steps to find out if there’s truth to the allegations.
Q: What do you think of the proposed City Charter amendments, such as the one giving the (police) commission subpoena powers?
A: That would be useful, in terms of obtaining whatever documents or testimony you need. That charter amendment certainly implies that we have broad powers to investigate.