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Former Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan on Police Reforms

Noe Tanigawa
hawaii public radio
Thousands of sign wavers around Hawai'i joined others around the world during two weekends of protest against police violence in early June, 2020.

This week, questions have been raised about discrepancies in the Honolulu Police Department’s "use of force" reports, resulting in an undercount of deaths involving police. This comes as protests across America have focused on police reform. Loretta Sheehan chaired the Honolulu Police Commission until January, and discussed what changes could look like at HPD.

Credit Noe Tanigawa

Former federal prosecutor Loretta Sheehan's term on the Honolulu Police Commission ended last December and with new commissioners on board, she has returned to private practice. Looking at recent calls for police reform, Sheehan points to Operation Zero, a national police reform organization that has looked at rerouting funds from police departments.


"Defunding the police challenges the historic view that social order can only be maintained by criminalizing and punishing behavior. That uses the police and prosecutors as the enforcers. The defunding the police movement turns that on its head and says No, let's all recognize the police don't necessarily have the expertise to solve all our social ills."


Directing resources to appropriate service providers is the key, says Sheehan, along with close community involvement.


"The first thing is there has to be a change in culture," according to Sheehan. "The culture has to be not so much loyalty to the chef or to your supervisor or to your division or to the department or the force, it has to be to a greater purpose, that's the first thing, the culture, and I think honestly Sue Ballard is very good about that, about reinforcing the culture of a higher purpose." 


"The second thing is, when officers do suspect something, they have to have a safe place to report it." 


Currently, concerns go to the FBI or HPD internal affairs. Sheehan says civil rights are always a concern but she's had the impression Honolulu's police were doing better than jurisdictions elsewhere in the nation.


"At the same time, I had to recognize I actually  had no idea," says Sheehan, "Because the data is all secret and is destroyed after four years. Disciplinary proceedings are held in secret and the results are secret with the exception of a redacted report to the Legislature made once a year. Frankly, there's a whole lot the public and the Police Commission don't ever find out."


Asked if that is a problem? 


"Yes,' says Sheehan. "It is. The police department works for us and they are public servants."


Sheehan pressed for tougher questions during the investigation of former Police Chief Louis Kealoha, and was the only dissenting vote on Kealoha's $250,000 retirement package in 2017. Along with more transparency in police policies and disciplinary proceedings, Sheehan says the public might benefit if the police commission had more authority to look deeper into the police department.  


"The Charter Commission may want to allow the police commission to look under the hood and examine what is going on in the police department, adds Sheehan. "Just because things seem to be working well at the moment, again, Chief Kealoha teaches us the unthinkable can happen and citizen oversight is always necessary."  


Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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