Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell believes the Police Commission has plenty of power to effect change in the Honolulu Police Department.
Two recently resigned commissioners and Police Chief Susan Ballard, however, hold an opposite interpretation of city law and believe the panel can exert little if any authority over HPD.
The differences in opinion of the commission’s true authority are coming to light as the call for reform of police departments across the U.S. has heightened following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
“I think the power to hire and fire the chief executive of any organization, both be it private or public sector, is a great power,” Caldwell said June 8.
“Usually with that power comes ways to set policy, so I support the Police Commission setting the policy … for the Police Department and then making sure that the chief implements those policies,” Caldwell said. “And if they don’t, they have the power to hire or fire.”
Caldwell added that he believes the commission’s powers were enhanced with passage by Oahu voters of a 2016 amendment to the Honolulu City Charter that made it clear the panel is authorized to hire and fire the chief at will, and gave it additional power to investigate misconduct by police officers.
“They have the power to subpoena, to read the complaints from the department, they review the annual budget, they review the annual report and they review and report on the performance of the chief,” Caldwell said. “And I believe that if the performance is not up to what it should be, they would take action to find another chief. These are real powers that have a real effect on how the Honolulu Police Department is managed.”
The city should see how that Charter change works out before considering whether additional authority should be conferred on the commission, Caldwell said. “At this point I think we should let the commission do its job.”
His comments came during a news conference in which he announced the appointments of Michael Broderick and Doug Chin to the commission to fill two of three vacancies on the seven-member, all- volunteer panel.
The Honolulu Star- Advertiser asked his views on the issue of commission authority, noting that former Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan and onetime Vice Chairman Steven Levinson, in resigning from the commission late last month, both expressed frustration that the panel had limited authority over either the chief or the department.
“For a so-called civilian oversight body, the commission has very little oversight power with teeth,” Levinson told the Star-Advertiser last month. “And with respect to the use of its bully pulpit to do investigations and shed light on problems that it believes are taking place within the department, the commission has been historically unwilling to do that, to use it much, and remains unwilling to use it much.”
Ballard, at her own news conference on June 8, agreed with the commissioners that the panel has little oversight over HPD. But unlike the commissioners, Ballard doesn’t believe they should.
“The commission is not a civilian oversight board,” Ballard said. “They have certain powers that are given to them by (the) Charter. If they want that changed, then the Charter needs to be changed.”
However, “the commission, nor anyone else, should ever be in a position where they mandate specific, black-and-white changes, because law enforcement is basically operating most of the time in a gray area,” the chief said. “There’s very seldom black-and-white answers because these officers out there on the road, we can’t forget that they make instantaneous decisions. They don’t have time to slow down the frame, bit by bit, to see what’s going on. They don’t have time to turn around and consult with somebody else to decide what it is they have to do.”
Ballard stressed that she and HPD do seriously consider the recommendations by commissioners, “and we decide if it’s something we can do or something we cannot do.”
The Charter, in describing the role of the Police Commission, states, “Except for purposes of inquiry or as otherwise provided in this charter, neither the commission nor its members shall interfere in any way with the administrative affairs of the department.”
Levinson, on Tuesday, said Caldwell is technically correct that the commission does have the prerogative to fire the chief. “But I don’t agree with him that gives us policy-making authority.”
The Charter language in no way suggests that the commission should exert such authority, Levinson said. While in a private corporation, a board lays down policies for a chief executive officer to follow, “that’s not the way the Charter organizes the Police Department, and it isn’t a power that it gives the Police Commission.”
The power to hire, fire or discipline the chief “was not intended to give the commission policy- making powers,” Levinson said.