Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard’s third performance review by the Honolulu Police Commission is scheduled for today — and it comes after a tumultuous year in which Ballard and the Police Department were often questioned and criticized.
There was mostly celebration when Ballard was picked as Hawaii’s first female police chief in November 2017, and her work in the role was commended in her first two annual performance evaluations. In 2019 the police commission praised Ballard for turning around the department after the tenure of former Chief Louis Kealoha. Last year, the commission gave her high marks for her leadership and transparency.
But this year the commission, which has been more supportive than critical of Ballard, will be confronted with a slew of inquiries and attacks against HPD and the chief — many revolving around the department’s spending of CARES Act money and, recently, Ballard’s level of transparency with the public.
The Honolulu City Council last year questioned HPD’s use of federal money meant for relief amid the coronavirus pandemic. That spending included more than $3.6 million in various types of vehicles and more than $18 million in overtime spending and contract positions that the council thought was excessive when there were other priorities.
Overtime money was used to fund the department’s COVID-19 enforcement teams, which HPD announced in November. But the teams were suspended less than a month later after a leaked internal audit found multiple reports of overtime abuse.
Ballard later said in a video statement that over 260 officers were found to have violated the overtime policy for the enforcement teams.
City Council Chairman Tommy Waters in February introduced legislation to have the city auditor review HPD’s overtime policies, and the U.S. Treasury is already auditing HPD’s CARES Act spending.
Ballard’s handling of federal aid was problematic within HPD itself, as indicated by a December letter from an anonymous group of HPD commanders, who asked the Police Commission to investigate the “mismanagement” of funds by the Office of the Chief of Police.
The letter also indicated morale problems within HPD and accused Ballard of being “unwilling to consider concerns of line, supervisory, or Command officers,” and that raising concerns would result in “immediate banishment to a most undesirable assignment.”
More recently, Ballard has been chided for not being available to the public.
The police chief did not hold news conferences to address HPD’s problems relating to federal funding and overtime abuse. She instead chose to address them through video statements, which effectively shielded her from public questioning.
Even after a handful of notable murder cases on Oahu this year, including one involving a missing 18-month-old child, another in which a former teen gang member was shot and killed in Aiea, one after a fight between two drivers on the H-1 freeway near Kapolei, and another in which HPD found human remains in a vehicle in Kahaluu, Ballard declined to make herself available to reporters to answer questions.
In late March she held rare interviews with local news outlets, although the format was criticized as being “transparency-lite,” as described by Common Cause Hawaii.
Reporters were given just 10 minutes to talk with Ballard, the interviews were structured to be one-on-one with the chief, and reporters were asked to submit their questions to HPD hours beforehand.
“Reporters may not follow up on each other’s questions. A reporter may not ascertain the necessary information in 10 minutes and would need information gleaned from other reporter’s questions, which is denied under this format,” Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said in an email statement.
Josh Wisch, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said in an email statement that HPD’s transparency issues range “from not being transparent enough with their policies and procedures, to continuing efforts to hide incidents of police misconduct and how that misconduct is or is not corrected, to a lack of transparency when the Chief is questioned by the Police Commission.”
Other issues have arisen or continued since Ballard’s last performance review.
Last summer ACLU of Hawaii sent a letter to HPD detailing its concerns of racial and wealth profiling in arrests and use of force during COVID-19, and had recommended that HPD stop using arrests, citations and stops as a measure of effectiveness.
The city auditor released a report in December that found HPD’s policies to be insufficient in preventing misconduct, even though it has been collecting enough data to do so.
HPD is also facing an officer shortfall that’s continued to grow over the years. Though the department is making efforts to hire and retain officers, it’s trying to do so while expecting less money in the upcoming fiscal year.
Behind closed doors, the commission has been conducting interviews for months in preparation for today’s performance review. The commissioners conduct interviews, presumably with people who work with the chief, to grade her on categories including leadership, fiscal management, training, communication with the public and cooperation with the police commission.
The chief has the ability to keep the results of the review private, said former police commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan.
Ballard opted to make her first two evaluations public, but that might not happen this time around.
“I don’t know if she will do the same this year,” Sheehan said. “From what I’m hearing from people who have contributed to her evaluation, I’d be surprised if she made it public. But you never know.”
Today’s Police Commission meeting is available to the public. The agenda can be found at www.honolulu.gov/hpc/agendas.html and includes a link to a live YouTube stream.