When Honolulu Police Department officer Denny Santiago went public earlier this month with allegations of widespread corruption within the department, it was only the latest public relations blow to Oahu’s 2,000-strong police force.
For the past two years, a cloud has settled over HPD as developments in a federal grand jury probe have regularly hit the news.
Leadership also has been in flux since Chief Louis Kealoha, one target of the investigation, announced his retirement in January amid the widening probe. Efforts to replace him have plodded along since then, adding to an air of uncertainty.
And as a handful of officers have been named in civil lawsuits or criminal complaints, a debate has ensued at the Honolulu Police Commission on who is entitled to publicly funded legal counsel.
Santiago’s appearance before the commission to call attention to what he described as a double standard within HPD — including retaliation against those who speak up against wrongdoing — reflected what some say are long-standing concerns among officers about how the agency has been run.
“I believe that there is in fact a major morale problem within the department, particularly as it affects the rank and file,” said retired Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Steven Levinson, who has served on the commission for the past 10 months.
Levinson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he was basing his assessment on talks with numerous people within the department, but he emphasized that he was speaking as an individual commission member, not on behalf of the entire panel.
Levinson said he believes there is a widespread perception within HPD that favoritism, cronyism and disparate treatment are problems and that being part of the former chief’s inner circle was helpful for career advancement.
The uncertainty over who will be the next police chief and what will become of the pending federal investigation only adds to apprehension among the ranks, some say.
“When I do speak with officers/employees, it feels like everyone at HPD is holding their breath, waiting to see who the next chief will be,” wrote attorney Loretta Sheehan, another commissioner, in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “And of course, waiting to see if a federal indictment will, in fact, occur.”
The commission is expected to name a new police chief next month.
And the grand jury that was formed two years ago to hear evidence of alleged corruption expires at the end of October, raising expectations that indictments may be handed down by then.
Tenari Maafala, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the statewide police union, disputed the notion of a widespread morale problem.
“If there was a morale problem, officers would not report for work, and crime statistics would increase dramatically,” Maafala wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser.
On the contrary, he added, police have continued to serve in unwavering, courageous and resilient ways.
As just one example, he cited the officers who arrived at the recent Marco Polo high-rise blaze before firefighters got there.
Despite not having the necessary equipment, those officers without hesitation raced up stairs over 20-plus floors to start evacuating residents, including carrying some to safety, Maafala said.
He also disputed the notion that public trust in the force has eroded in the wake of the scandals.
“I genuinely believe the vast majority of Honolulu residents” support HPD, Maafala wrote.
Max Sword, chairman of the police commission, echoed Maafala’s sentiment. He referred to a 2016 Star-Advertiser poll that showed that nearly half the respondents voiced “strong confidence” or “very strong confidence” in HPD.
“That hasn’t changed,” Sword said.
He did acknowledge, however, that in a large organization such as HPD, not everyone will be happy.
“In a police force of 2,000, you’re going to have some who have complaints here and there,” Sword told the Star-Advertiser. “But that’s not to take their complaints lightly.”
One of the realities of the police profession is that “we know we will never please everyone,” Maafala said.
“Fueling this flame of negativity are certain politicians and government officials who rather focus only and narrowly on the negative occurrences while purposefully turning a blind eye, so to speak, to the countless sacrifices and outstanding work made by our police officers every day, all day, that far outweigh the negative issues,” he wrote.
Santiago, a 47-year-old corporal in HPD’s East Honolulu district, said he has received an outpouring of support from fellow officers since appearing before the commission, some sending him anonymous notes thanking him for speaking up.
“A lot of them have thanked me for coming forward,” Santiago said in a phone interview. “A lot of them want to say stuff but don’t want to face the repercussions of coming forward.”
Many of them have been wronged, he added, but are reluctant to say anything because they have to provide financial support for their families.
Asked whether he’s received negative responses from co-workers, he acknowledged getting “stink looks” from officers who don’t agree with what he has done. But of the written responses, “I haven’t gotten one negative one,” he said.
Levinson, the commission member, said his sense is that most officers “have had experiences they think are in the same general neighborhood as what has been bothering Cpl. Santiago.”
“My sense is that he is not a Cassandra crying ‘help’ unjustifiably in the wilderness,” Levinson said, referring to the Greek mythological figure who was said to be cursed so that no one believed her prophecies.
Levinson lauded the job that Cary Okimoto, the acting police chief, has done since Kealoha’s retirement.
“He’s tried to do everything he can to keep the waters as smooth as possible,” Levinson said. “The ship has righted somewhat.”
He also lauded the officers he’s encountered since joining the commission.
“I think most of the department is trying to carry on in accordance with departmental standards and with excellence while things sort themselves out,” Levinson said.
In an email to the Star-Advertiser, Okimoto acknowledged that not having a permanent chief has been challenging at times.
“As interim administrators, we have done our best to guide the department in a direction that best serves our community and our employees,” Okimoto wrote. “Although the department’s leadership has changed, the public’s need for police service has not, and we remain focused on doing our jobs.
“Our officers are highly trained professionals who entered police work knowing that it was not an easy or a popular profession. The vast majority of our officers are honest, hardworking and committed to public service. The few who are not must answer for their actions.”
Okimoto thanked Oahu citizens for their support during this transition period.
“We will have a new chief shortly,” he wrote, “and we look forward to the fresh direction and leadership that he or she will bring.”