Honolulu police chief retiring June 1

Just days after a poor annual review, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard announced that she will retire from the department June 1.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Saturday that Ballard said she no longer has the support to effectively run HPD on a video message posted online Friday evening.

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“The Honolulu Police Commission has been taking a more active role in running the department, and it has become increasingly clear that I no longer have the trust and support of the Police Commission or the new mayoral administration,” Ballard said. “This, along with a rampant rumor campaign, has made it next to impossible for me to lead the department effectively.”

The announcement comes just after the commission Wednesday released a scathing annual performance evaluation saying Ballard had not met expectations in several key areas as HPD chief.

Ballard, 64, did not give any further details on the “rumor campaign” she mentioned in her video announcement.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi, in a brief news conference Friday, said he’s not sure what Ballard meant when she said she no longer had his support.

“I don’t understand that comment, to be honest, because I’ve been nothing but supportive of Chief Ballard in all of my dealings with her,” he said. “We’ve had extensive conversations about leadership, expectations and what we needed going forward … in that role.”

Ballard was given a five-year term as chief in late 2017, which meant she was scheduled to serve as HPD’s chief until late 2022.

“For the past 36 years, it has been my privilege to serve alongside the outstanding women and men who are the heart and soul of HPD,” she said at the end of her video announcement. “Mahalo to the community for its continued support of the Honolulu Police Department in a time when police departments are faced with increasing challenges. HPD is truly fortunate to serve and protect a community that cares for its officers as much as we care for you.”

Ballard was not available for additional comment.

The Police Commission was disappointed in Ballard’s announcement.

“The Commission was looking forward to spending the next sixty days working on the Performance Improvement Plan with Chief Ballard, but instead will shift its focus and attention to the transition and work on next interim steps that are best for the department and the City and County of Honolulu,” it said in a statement.

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, in a statement, said, “These are challenging times for police departments across the country and Honolulu is no exception. The Department of the Prosecuting Attorney thanks Chief Ballard for her 36 years of service to our community and we wish her the best in her retirement.”

Given Wednesday’s evaluation, former police Commissioner Steven Levinson said he wasn’t surprised by Ballard’s decision to resign.

“Given the totality of the circumstances, she essentially got a vote of no confidence by the commission,” he said. “The commission has created a game board that she has to play over the course of the next 60 days, which will determine her future. It’s a difficult game, and the handwriting was sort of on the wall, I think.”

Levinson was referring to the commission’s “performance improvement plan,” which required her to meet certain quotas — like making a certain number of video blogs or hold a certain number of news conferences, for example — over the next two months.

He said Ballard would not be necessarily bound to following the plan, because of the limited power of the commission. But because of one of the oversight tools it has — the authority to suspend or fire the police chief “for any reason,” according to Honolulu’s city charter — she would essentially be forced to follow the plan.

“I think part of what’s going on here is an implicit message to the chief that she has to shape up or she may not … see the full five years of the term that she was given,” Levinson said after Wednesday’s evaluation. “The commission can’t force her to do anything, but if she doesn’t do it, the commission can fire her.”

Ballard’s announcement came as a shock to HPD’s union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, which had hoped she would finish her term as chief.

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu, an HPD sergeant, sympathized with Ballard for being HPD’s chief during an unprecedented year.

“This chief has been through what no other chief in the department’s history has been through. She went through losing two officers, a pandemic — a year ago nobody knew what COVID was and how it affected everybody,” Lutu said. “This time last year we were fighting everybody for PPE (personal protective equipment). We were fighting for masks and hand sanitizer. … We never had suits. We never had full face shields like EMS (Emergency Medical Services) and fire. This chief has been through a lot.”

He also noted that rotating shifts for officers and caps on overtime were some of the biggest issues among rank-and-file officers recently. They had become options for HPD, and Ballard worked with SHOPO to avoid them.

Lutu said some of the Police Commission’s criticisms of Ballard, such as morale and poor communication, were more a reflection of higher-ranking members of HPD rather than rank-and-file officers.

“We only ask that the chief has an open door, and some chiefs have and some chiefs haven’t. And she’s one that has. So, she’s listened to us,” Lutu said.

He hopes that the next chief is someone with which “we don’t go backwards, that we don’t have to start conversations all over.”

Blangiardi, during his news conference, was also disappointed about Ballard’s announcement but wanted to focus on HPD’s future.

“Chief Ballard will be retiring effective June 1, which gives us some time now to work on what we’re going to do to replace her. And my plan is to meet with the Police Commission as soon as possible to discuss what it is we need,” he said. “They just conducted a very extensive and diligent evaluation of her performance … and so I believe they’ve learned a lot about what would be best for us going forward.”

He hopes to have “a big say” in who gets to be the next police chief.

The Police Commission said it will decide who becomes interim chief once Ballard departs. It’s also the commission’s responsibility to hire a new chief, a process Levinson said took more than a year after former Chief Louis Kealoha resigned from HPD in 2017.

The top of HPD’s hierarchy is now set for a shake- up, while the Police Commission, which set it in motion, continues to evolve.

Blangiardi recently nominated a former HPD officer, Benjamin Mahi, to the City Council to fill a vacancy in the Police Commission left by Levinson.

When asked whether he believes Mahi will continue to hold HPD accountable as a commissioner, Blangiardi said, “I don’t see a reason why he would not be able to hold HPD accountable should he be selected to the Police Commission.”

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Levinson, who praised the commission for choosing, as a body, to be critical of the chief after being unwilling to do so in years past, said he hopes it continues to trend in that direction.

“The commissioners shouldn’t be political cronies, but should be people with particular aptitudes and motivations to hold the department and chief to a high standard and to expect the department … to address problems that have become apparent,” he said. “I think the commission is slowly evolving in the direction of being that kind of commission.”

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