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Hawaii News | Lee Cataluna

Kealoha’s tenure began with such promise

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    Chief of Police Louis Kealoha at the Honolulu Police Commission meeting.

It was a Friday night in December 2009 when brand new police chief Louis Kealoha walked into the union hall filled with about 100 SHOPO members and was greeted with a standing ovation.

“Eh, how you guys doing?” Kealoha asked the crowd. “You guys know my personality. I’m low-key. I just wanted to come and say aloha and thank you for all your support.”

SHOPO President Tenari Ma’afala said it was the first time a chief had addressed the union’s general membership. My friend and former colleague Curtis Lum covered that 2009 meeting and remembers that everyone in that room was so happy.

It’s too soon to write the “how far they’ve fallen” summation. The criminal charges against retired Honolulu police Chief Kealoha and his wife, a city prosecutor, will have to unfold over time in court. We don’t yet know how this story ends.

But at this moment, so many, including probably Kealoha himself, are trying to understand what happened to the affable chief so many were thrilled was chosen to lead the department. The man leaving the federal courthouse on Friday didn’t even resemble the energetic, optimistic Louis Kealoha who, when asked in 2009 why he wanted to be chief at a time when morale was low and the budget was tight, said: “This is the best time to be the chief of police. This is the best time to step forward. You know why? Because I believe in this police department. I believe in our people. I believe that when we’re challenged, we’re going to rise up and we’re going to succeed.”

In March 2010, I wrote a profile of the new chief. My central question was why so many on the force loved the guy. It had to be more than just his personality and a ready smile. Kealoha told me the story of how he went from struggling student and scrub football player at Damien to getting his doctorate through a program at prestigious USC. That path included 15 years of night school classes to get his four-year bachelor’s degree. In graduate school, he began studying education theory and understanding the ways different people learn. He figured out what worked for his style of learning and used those new skills to pass the lieutenant’s exam on his first try. After that, he started helping others on the force. He started test-prep courses for police officers wanting to move up in their careers. That was a big reason so many on the force loved him. He told them that if he could do it, they could too … and then he taught them how.

His was supposed to be a story of a self-made man who climbed the career ladder through his own grit and diligence and then reached back to help other cops better themselves.

Instead, acting Chief Cary Okimoto stood outside the federal courthouse on Friday and said the Kealohas’ arrests hurt the entire police department and the whole community.

It’s too soon to assume outcomes and to try to reconcile Kealoha’s auspicious beginning with these ignominious charges or to trace how his earnest ambition may have warped into a hunger for luxury. All that can be said with certainty is what a shame this is.

Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or

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