Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha today officially closes out a 33-year career, his seven years at the top now overshadowed by a federal investigation into conspiracy and corruption.
Kealoha and the Honolulu Police Commission agreed to the terms of his retirement in January, a settlement that includes a $250,000 severance payment. The agreement came after Kealoha in December placed himself on paid leave when he received a letter from the FBI informing him that he was the target of an investigation.
First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert, a key figure in the federal case that is believed to be centered around Kealoha and other officers, said it’s too early to write the conclusion to the chief’s career.
“It’s an unfinished retrospective because I think we’re going to know a lot more about his past conduct when the federal indictments are issued,” Silvert said Monday. “So it’s hard to judge a man at this point given that reality.”
Silvert, who has represented Kealoha’s relative Gerard Puana in legal proceedings opposite the chief, turned over information to the FBI that precipitated a federal grand jury investigation underway now for more than a year.
Silvert on Monday reiterated that he believes an indictment of Kealoha will be handed down, along with one against wife Katherine Kealoha — Puana’s niece and a city deputy prosecutor. “Based upon what I uncovered and what I believe happened, I think we have to wait to judge his term,” Silvert said.
The chief’s troubles began when Silvert said he thinks Puana was framed for stealing a mailbox in front of the Kealohas’ Kahala home in 2013. The chief, he said, purposely triggered a mistrial in December 2014 in the federal case against Puana to avert a not-guilty verdict that would have undercut Katherine Kealoha’s standing in a civil case against Puana in a family dispute over money.
The Kealohas’ attorney, Myles Breiner, defended his client.
“I believe he’s been innocent … of all the speculation that’s been swirling around him,” Breiner said. In the mailbox theft case, Kealoha unintentionally made a faux pas while on the witness stand by mentioning Puana had a prior conviction, he said Monday.
“Ever since that happened, the chief has been vilified as intentionally throwing the case, (but) it makes no sense that he would try to do that,” Breiner said. “I mean, look at the end result.”
Kealoha did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
A popular choice
In 2009 Louis Kealoha was a captain who had never commanded a patrol district or division when the Honolulu Police Commission picked him to be chief from a list of finalists that included higher-ranking colleagues. The choice was so popular among HPD’s rank and file that when Kealoha was sworn in at Honolulu Hale on Nov. 25, 2009, several hundred mostly uniformed officers showed up to wish him well.
Kealoha adopted as his administration’s motto the acronym “MAP,” short for mahalo (thanks), aloha (love) and pono (righteousness). The philosophy, and Kealoha’s photo, are still on the chief’s page of HPD’s website.
Former Police Commission member Craig Watase said while Kealoha was not his first choice, he was clearly a qualified candidate and had a good interview.
Some have been skeptical of Kealoha’s close ties to the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, SHOPO, but Watase said he never saw Kealoha put the union’s priorities over the department’s.
The chief and union butted heads on different issues, including Kealoha’s unpopular decision to require all officers to cover up any exposed tattoos, Watase said.
Kealoha also never consented to SHOPO’s request to reinstate a three-day workweek for officers, a policy instituted by Lee Donohue and stopped by Boisse Correa, Kealoha’s immediate predecessor, Watase said.
Donohue said he thinks Kealoha has done an admirable job as chief and is getting a bad rap. “Overall, when you look at what Chief Kealoha did, he did a good job,” Donohue said.
“I still say that nothing was ever proven, just that letter from the FBI,” he said. The letter alone, he said, has led many in the community and media to arrive at an unfair perception of him and ultimately forced him to retire.
“There’s nothing that’s been proven against him,” Donohue said. “There may be in the future, but I think they should have kept him on as the chief.”
Police Commission member Loretta Sheehan, who has been Kealoha’s biggest critic since joining the seven-member panel in September, was the lone dissenting vote when the commission voted 5-1 to agree to the settlement with Kealoha. Instead, Sheehan wanted the commission to conduct a hearing to discuss his “potential removal.”
In a letter she circulated to fellow commission members, Sheehan demanded Kealoha respond to a series of issues she felt represented “your failure to demonstrate the leadership and managerial qualities essential to the position of chief of police.”
Among the issues were the morale of officers, the Puana case and the $4.7 million settlement of a case brought by three former police officers who claimed they were discriminated against because of their sex or race and then subjected to a cover-up by HPD brass. No officers were ever disciplined despite the city’s decision to settle the case, she said.
Sheehan told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday that she thinks Kealoha left a lot of questions unanswered. “I thought there were events during his term that needed to be investigated,” she said. “Clearly, there were things that troubled me and concerned me, but you can’t draw judgment when you haven’t investigated.”
Sheehan said she’s also heard from many police officers who’ve approached her and voiced dissatisfaction with Kealoha’s administration.
Nanci Kreidman, chief executive of the nonprofit Domestic Violence Action Center, said her agency has sought to work with HPD to provide better response to victims of domestic violence, but changes have been slow in coming.
Under a partnership with HPD, Kreidman’s organization recently began sending advocates to domestic violence scenes, she said. “We are still working out the lumps.”
Kealoha “could have been a better advocate to increase training and accountability,” she said.
“I think training has been insufficient, accountability has certainly been insufficient,” Kreidman said. “Police officers have to be sufficiently trained to respond to the problem of domestic violence effectively and appropriately.”
State Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), a frequent critic of Kealoha, said the chief remains innocent until proved guilty, but he believes the concerns raised about him should be taken seriously.
Espero noted that retired police officer Niall Silva pleaded guilty to conspiring to frame Puana for the mailbox theft. While what’s been made public has yet to point guilt back to either of the Kealohas, “the implication is this is a serious case that is being developed,” he said.
“One law enforcement officer has pleaded guilty, and in all likelihood there will be others who will also be pulled into this dragnet and … the speculation that the chief and his wife might be at the forefront of this case really is quite disturbing and unsettling.”
The Police Commission has already begun discussion on picking Kealoha’s successor and expects to have one in place sometime this summer.