Susan Ballard, Honolulu’s first female police chief, has a strong ally in the new chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission, Loretta Sheehan.
Ballard took over as chief on Nov. 1, saying the Honolulu Police Department needed to “move away from the warrior mentality and more to the guardian mentality.”
While Ballard has received blowback for some of her recent actions, Sheehan, who was elected chairwoman on Wednesday, said she is “extremely impressed” with Ballard’s performance.
“She started an immediate reorganization, which was, in my view, long overdue,” Sheehan said in an interview prior to her election as chairwoman.
Ballard “made common- sense decisions” such as establishing an Internet Crimes Unit.
But Ballard also has met with resistance from some in the Honolulu Police Department.
On Feb. 5, an attorney for several members of the police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, filed a complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board alleging Ballard transferred four of the union’s top officials involuntarily to undesirable jobs in violation of HPD’s contract with SHOPO.
Last week, an attorney for one of the four police officers accused of abusing a homeless man criticized Ballard for “jumping the gun” by promptly forwarding the case to FBI and then holding a news conference about it.
Sheehan said she believes Ballard acted properly when she reported to the FBI a possible civil rights case involving four HPD officers who allegedly forced a homeless man to lick a urinal in a public restroom. Sheehan pointed out that Ballard did not identify the officers, who were placed on restrictive duty.
“Even though it gave the Police Department somewhat of a black eye, every single one of those steps was exactly the right thing to do,” Sheehan said. It was leadership “I don’t think we would have seen under the old chief,” she said, referring to former chief Louis Kealoha, who is now under federal indictment on public corruption charges.
Sheehan is not alone in her support for Ballard.
Police Commissioner Steven Levinson said Ballard has done “a fantastic job” to date. “I think she’s got overwhelming support in the department, and I’m seeing a lot of refreshing changes,” he said. “I’m still of the view that Susan Ballard was everything we thought she was when we picked her, and I couldn’t be more pleased that she’s the chief. She’s the person that we need in that job at this time.”
Levinson said he doesn’t believe the transfers of union leaders were demotions for the four men, which include SHOPO President Tenari Ma’afala. Ma’afala was reassigned Dec. 1 to the overnight watch in the Waikiki patrol district from the Peer Support Unit. Referring to the labor complaint, Levinson said there are 1,500 uniformed HPD district patrol officers who “probably don’t regard their work as scutwork.”
Former HPD Chief Lee Donohue said that, given what he knows of the alleged toilet incident involving the four police officers, the accusations amount to a civil rights case and therefore was properly sent to the FBI.
Donohue said he’s not surprised that union leaders and some rank-and-file officers are unhappy with Ballard’s approach, given that SHOPO leaders had a close relationship with Kealoha. “Sure, she’s going to have problems with the union. The chief that didn’t have problems with the union is no longer there.”
The SHOPO complaint before the labor board alleges Ballard violated the terms of the bargaining agreement between the union and the city. The agreement states the employer cannot transfer or reassign a union official unless the employee requests or volunteers for it, or if the transfer or reassignment is due to normal within-unit rotation, an operational need for special skills an officer may possess, or the employee is unable to perform the essential tasks of his or her assigned duties.
Ballard told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Friday that the new assignments are part of a larger-scale reorganization designed to make HPD more efficient. “We just needed to move forward, to do new things.”
Doing what’s best
Some have suggested that Ballard’s handling of the transfer of SHOPO leaders and going promptly to the FBI on the alleged abuse case may signal a shift in the department’s philosophy to emphasize that the public comes first, not the police officers.
But Ballard said that’s not necessarily the case. When it comes to decisions involving officers, what’s best for the community, the department and the employee are weighed, she said. “And the other thing we’ve just got to remember is that, in general, what is good for the community is what’s good for our employees, or vice versa.”
She and the department brass maintain a cordial relationship with SHOPO’s Oahu representatives “and we will continue to work closely with the Honolulu board … and have good open communication with them,” she said.
Ma’afala declined to speak about the labor board complaint he and three others filed against Ballard and HPD regarding their reassignments, citing its pending nature.
Ma’afala said he can’t properly assess Ballard’s performance so far because SHOPO’s Oahu chapter leaders deal with her on labor issues. “I haven’t really dealt with her directly on any projects or assignments,” he said.
Learning of the allegations raised in the abuse case “breaks my heart if that occurred … but I hope and pray that it is just allegations,” Ma’afala said. “We obviously don’t condone any criminal acts by any officer. Everyone in the community, homeless or not, it doesn’t matter. Everyone should be treated equally.”
As chief, it was her prerogative to send the matter to the FBI, he said.
Ma’afala said he believes Ballard has the best interests of HPD’s officers at heart. “At the end of the day, we’re working for the greater good,” he said. But asked about the suggestion that Ballard has a public-first philosophy, he said that “in order for the public to be well, we (the officers) need to be well.”
Megan Kau, an attorney for one of the four officers accused of abuse, said Ballard “jumped the gun” by going straight to the FBI and then the media. The matter should have first been taken to HPD’s Professional Standards Office (formerly Internal Affairs), she said. “That is the PSO’s sole purpose, to investigate officers who have allegedly done something wrong, whether administrative or criminal.”
What’s more, “they don’t have anybody that actually saw what happened,” Kau said. “The victim was uncooperative and didn’t give a statement that these people forced him to do that.”
Ballard did not name the officers, but people may be able to infer who they were based on the information she gave publicly, Kau said. And while Ballard said she forwarded the case to both PSO and FBI, Kau said that the detective in Professional Standards told her that it was no longer his case because the FBI has it.
“Honestly, my professional and personal opinion is that she was the right choice out of all of those (chief) candidates … and I still believe she was the right choice,” Kau said. “I commend her for trying to clean HPD … and HPD needs a lot of cleaning. She has good intentions … but she’s just got to learn what’s allowed and not allowed.”
Star-Advertiser reporter Leila Fujimori contributed to this story.