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HPD commanders ask for investigation into spending of CARES Act money

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                                Police Chief Susan Ballard


    Police Chief Susan Ballard

In an anonymous letter, a group of Honolulu Police Department commanders asked the Honolulu Police Commission to investigate mismanaged CARES Act funding and planning by Police Chief Susan Ballard’s office during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The letter, dated Friday but received by the commission Monday, was sent by an anonymous commander but said it represented a “small group of commanders deeply concerned with whether the Office of Chief of Police exercised proper fiscal controls, fund management, and an overall fiduciary duty to the Department, city and community.”

The letter primarily discussed COVID-19 enforcement and the use of over $30 million in federal aid afforded to HPD to respond to the novel coronavirus on Oahu.

It said that police officer discretion was “thwarted” by the chief’s office and that orders regarding enforcement of emergency orders came directly from the chief’s office with little input from the command staff.

It then argued that a “sensible” COVID-19 operational plan should have been in place early on, with a better citation strategy, officer training, safeguards to avoid overtime abuse and more public outreach and signage. Poor planning by the chief’s office, according to the letter, led to blatant overtime abuse of the COVID enforcement teams.

Ballard recently suspended the enforcement teams as HPD’s Professional Standards Office further investigates an audit that found 59 officers who logged more than 20 hours of overtime per week, which is prohibited.

The letter, on multiple occasions, pointed out that there have only been 962 convictions out of 60,000 coronavirus citations, at one point saying, “For an end result of a mere 962 convictions (out of 60,000 cases), is statistical evidence of gross mismanagement and malfeasance.”

According to data from the state Judiciary, there were about 72,000 COVID-19-related charges made by Honolulu police between March and October, of which about 60,500 have had some kind of resolution. The Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office declined to prosecute 43,700 of those charges, while another 15,700 were dismissed in court.

HPD posted the letter on its website along with a three-minute video response from Ballard, who said there was no mismanagement of the federal funding.

“These moneys were used to purchase safety equipment and equipment to assist in the enforcement of COVID-related activities as well as enforcement of the proclamations,” she said.

Ballard, in the video, did not address the low conviction rate or the lack of input from the commanders on coronavirus enforcement and said all the “suggestions” for the COVID-19 operational plan are already in place.

She also briefly refuted a claim in the letter that said HPD was attempting to use city funds to “steer clear of a misuse of federal funds charge.”

Police Commission Chairwoman Shannon Alivado, in a statement, said the commission intends to discuss the letter during the next commission meeting “and request action steps from the Chief and the Department to get complete transparency.”

Commissioner Richard Parry had reservations about the letter, noting that Ballard has said for some time that the COVID-19 penalties have been too harsh.

“The problem was HPD was given the job of enforcing the COVID regulations, but the only enforcement tool they really had, apart from just warning people, was to cite them. And by doing that, then they would overload the courts,” Parry said. “I think HPD was sort of caught in the middle.”

Violating a COVID-19 emergency rule is a misdemeanor that can be punished by a fine of up to $5,000 and a year in jail.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Ballard emailed him the letter, and praised her for her transparency, noting the ongoing investigation into the overtime abuse.

“I have to say again, this is another example of Chief Ballard being completely open and transparent. When something like this occurs, she steps forward, she doesn’t step away,” he said. “This is so completely different than the culture of the Police Department going back probably dec­ades.”

Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.

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