A legislator, city councilman, former police officer and criminologist are among those who are calling for a change in leadership at the Honolulu Police Department after its top executive, Chief Louis Kealoha, was placed on paid leave Tuesday following confirmation that he was the target of a federal criminal investigation.
The Honolulu Police Commission is scheduled to discuss Kealoha’s status at its Jan. 4 meeting, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Tuesday urged the body to take “decisive action” and not allow the situation to drag on.
Others expressed similar sentiments but went a step further, calling for Kealoha to quit or be removed. Some said his effectiveness as a leader has been too compromised, while others said the criminal case has eroded public trust in the department and would continue to do so in the months ahead.
“I think it’s in the best interest of the public and the department for the chief to step down,” City Councilman Brandon Elefante, who heads the Council’s Public Safety Committee, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, while lauding Kealoha for his many years of service.
State Sen. Will Espero, a critic of Kealoha’s leadership, also called for the chief to step down, saying his being the target of a criminal investigation — not to mention the civil lawsuits he’s dealing with — would be too distracting for HPD.
“With that alone, the Police Commission needs to understand the seriousness of the matter and find a police chief who can lead the department from here on out,” Espero said.
Kealoha on Monday received a so-called target letter saying he was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation, prompting the chief to place himself on restricted duty, meaning he temporarily gave up his police powers and turned in his badge and firearm.
After a conversation with Max Sword, chairman of the commission, which has the power to hire and fire the police chief, the decision was made for Kealoha to go on paid leave for 30 days, according to Sword, who appeared at a news conference Tuesday with Cary Okimoto, the deputy chief who is now acting police chief, and Roy Amemiya, the city’s managing director and acting mayor because Caldwell is on vacation.
Kealoha earns $190,408 per year.
Okimoto confirmed that four other police officers, whom he wouldn’t name, also received target letters as part of the same federal criminal investigation and have been placed on restricted duty. Unlike the chief, though, those four are still on the job — minus their badges, firearms and police powers — and have been reassigned to desk duty while the federal case is pending.
The grand jury is investigating alleged corruption within HPD stemming from a case over a stolen mailbox.
Gerard Puana, uncle of Kealoha’s wife, Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, alleged that he was framed by police for the theft of the couple’s mailbox in June 2013.
Louis Kealoha received his target letter just days after a retired police officer, Niall Silva, pleaded guilty in federal court to falsifying documents and altering evidence in a court case connected to the alleged mailbox theft.
The plea by Silva lends support to Puana’s claim that he was framed.
Sword wouldn’t comment on the options the commission would consider about Kealoha’s status at its upcoming meeting, but he applauded the chief for agreeing to go on leave.
“It’s good that he left the building,” Sword said.
Okimoto said the department wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, which would have been the case had the chief remained on the job even in a restricted capacity.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Kealoha indicated that he has no intention of stepping down, saying he voluntarily placed himself on restricted status while maintaining that he has done nothing wrong.
“There is no economic advantage to my staying on as chief, but if I leave the department now, I give credence to the baseless attacks,” Kealoha said in statement issued before the press conference was announced. “I will continue to stand up for my police officers even if it means continued criticism from those who either do not care to understand or who are pursuing their own political agenda.”
But even as Kealoha professed his innocence, calls for his removal grew.
“If he’s unwilling to (step down), it’s past time for the intervention by the Police Commission,” said Annelle Amaral, a former HPD officer and ex-legislator.
The continued controversy surrounding the chief is making the difficult job of being a police officer even harder, Amaral said, tainting the department and eroding public trust.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist, said the uncertainty stemming from Kealoha’s legal troubles could linger for months, preventing him from effectively leading the department.
“He needs to be persuaded to step aside or resign,” Chesney-Lind said. “The current situation is unworkable.”
News that the chief was placed on leave after getting the target letter jolted a department already suffering from morale problems after months of controversy and unflattering media attention.
“Today is not a good day,” Okimoto said, “but I think this is the first big step in letting the rank and file and everyone know that we are moving on.”
Those at the news conference said the department would continue to rely on the many outstanding officers who show up every day to do their jobs, helping keep Honolulu the safest large city in the country.
When the commission meets next month, it will discuss Kealoha under the old rules of the commission’s powers, not the new ones approved by voters in November, according to Sword.
In approving a charter amendment, voters gave the commission expanded powers in its oversight of the police chief, enabling the panel to remove or suspend a chief for any reason, including behavior inconsistent with the public interest.
Prior to November’s vote the commission could fire the chief only for cause or, as the charter stated, for “continuous maladministration” after giving him or her a reasonable period to correct the problem.
“The bar is higher under the old rules,” Sword said.
Because Kealoha signed his employment agreement under the old rules, that is what the commission has to follow, Sword said.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the city’s managing director as Ron Amemiya. His first name is Roy.