Sunday, November 4, 2001

a split in the ranks

Steeped in secrecy, charges of
racism and sexism plague the
Kauai Police Department

By Tony Sommer

LIHUE >> Bubbling just below the surface of the strange case of Kauai Police Chief George Freitas are broader and persistent questions, always asked in hushed tones, about racism and sexism in the Kauai Police Department.

The racist question arises because, on an island where 37 percent of the labor force is Caucasian, only one white officer holds a rank above sergeant --- and that's Freitas. He has been suspended with pay since Aug. 10 as a consequence of a complaint filed by two senior KPD officers, Lt. Alvin Seto and Inspector Mel Morris. Neither Freitas nor the public have been apprised of the specific charges against him, if any.

Freitas, whose family is Portuguese, was born and raised on Oahu but spent most of his police career in Richmond, Calif., and is considered by some senior KPD officers to be an outsider. He was hired in 1995 to bring diversity to a police department that had been almost entirely male, Japanese-American and Hawaiian. He recruited more Filipinos and Caucasians as patrolmen but the department has only two officers of Chinese or Korean ancestry.

The ranks of the senior lieutenants and inspectors in the KPD are deeply divided over the investigation of Freitas. His supporters and critics appear to break along generational lines. The older lieutenants and inspectors who rose through the ranks before Freitas was hired are the most critical. Younger senior officers openly support Freitas.

As one insider said of the chief's critics: "They firmly believe in rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies." Their numbers are dwindling as they retire but many have resisted the reforms Freitas has attempted to make.

Similarly, the sexist issue arises because no woman has risen above the rank of sergeant when women comprise 46 percent of the island's labor force.

Only five of the KPD's 94 officers are women. Two episodes -- one involving a woman suspect and the other involving a woman KPD officer -- illustrate the attitude of some KPD officers toward women.

An exotic dancer named Monica Alves was arrested for alleged prostitution in 1995. Alves was forced to strip and was fondled and photographed in the nude in the Lihue Police Station. A sergeant and two patrolmen were fired and two more patrolmen resigned.

Arbitrators later ordered two of the fired officers rehired and the third was put back to work before the arbitrator issued a ruling.

Monica Alves, awaiting a court appearance in 1998,
said she was stripped, fondled and photographed by
police after her arrest in 1995.

While the arbitrators said the patrolmen were wrong, they said the blame lies with supervisors in the KPD who created a climate in which a woman suspect was mistreated.

"It appears that activities at the Lihue Police Station were allowed to proceed without the type of control one would expect at a police station," Max Graham, a Lihue attorney, wrote in his findings. "It further appears that more senior officers knew or should have known that better control was warranted."

Alves later sued Kauai County and received a $250,000 settlement. In 1998, she and her husband, Mitchell Peralto, were convicted of the murder of Alves' niece, a drug informant for the KPD. Both are serving life sentences.

Then, in 1997, a female KPD officer, Lisa Fisher, resigned because of what she termed "a hostile work environment." In a lawsuit she filed the following year, she asserted that her supervisor in the Hanalei Substation, Sgt. Cecil Baliaris, had repeatedly made suggestive comments about her body and about his genitals, leading other male officers to do the same. Ultimately, Fisher alleged that Officer Michael Kiyabu grabbed her breasts in front of other officers.

When she filed a sexual harassment complaint with Freitas, she was taken off the road and given a desk job. The charges never were investigated, her lawsuit claims. Last year, Kauai County paid $425,000 to settle the case, the highest in county history. Fisher's Kauai-born Honolulu lawyer Richard Wilson said: "As far as I know, no one ever was disciplined in this case."

A lack of oversight that permits questionable racial and gender attitudes is compounded, Wilson asserted, by Kauai's detachment from the rest of Hawaii. "Kauai is 560 square miles of island located 100 miles from any outside authority," he said. "Kauai is very much the 'Separate Kingdom' it prides itself on having been historically, and its police force is the best example."

Mayor Maryanne Kusaka declined to be interviewed on these issues. Gary Hooser, chairman of the Kauai County Council's Public Safety Committee, said he has had discussions with the county personnel director about racism, sexism, nepotism and political favoritism in county hiring practices but has not specifically addressed the KPD.

Dede Wilhelm, chairwoman of the Kauai Police Commission, said: "There's nothing wrong with the racial mix. We've got a great bunch of cops." She goes to high schools to talk up a police career for young women, she said, "but the wahine don't sign up. It's not glamorous enough." As for the KPD having only two Chinese-American officers, she said, "The Chinese are smart. They go study medicine."

Wilhelm said a state law that prohibits police departments from recruiting on the mainland should be abolished because she has been approached by officers who would like to move to Kauai. "We're all Americans and Americans should be free to move and work wherever they want to," she said.

A recent incident underscores a widely held belief among locals and newcomers alike that, as Wilson put it: "As long as you're hooked up with the cops, you can do anything you want because there is no oversight of the KPD."

Elaine Schaefer, a white mainland transplant and former police sergeant in Oakland, Calif., was riding her horse on a north shore trail last May when three pitbulls attacked the horse. The woman was thrown and the horse plunged over a cliff and died.

A witness saw a local man carrying a rifle who had been hunting with the dogs. As the man ran past her, he said he wasn't going to take the blame for the attack. She provided an artist a description that was turned into a sketch published in The Garden Island newspaper. The KPD received numerous telephone calls, all naming the same individual. But the police didn't arrange for a lineup for the witness. Instead of reckless endangerment or criminal property damage, the police wrote it up as a leash law violation, a petty misdemeanor.

The detective assigned to the case, Lt. Glenn Morita, took three months to locate a driver's license picture of the suspect. The sole witness, who had since moved to the mainland for health reasons, was unable to identify the man's picture in a photo lineup she was sent in the mail. In September, Morita told the victim he had done all he could do. That same month, Morita was named "Officer of the Month" by the police commission.

A Kauai resident with an insider's view of the KPD whose Asian-American family has lived on Kauai for several generations said: "The minute the sketch of the suspect appeared in the newspaper, everyone on the north shore knew exactly who it was, but he hasn't been arrested and probably never will be. He's a local guy with very close ties to the Kauai Police Department. The victim is a haole from the mainland. That's how it is with the KPD. That's how it is on Kauai."

Responsibility for oversight of the KPD rests with the Kauai Police Commission, a group of seven citizens appointed by the mayor that meets monthly. The commission hires the police chief but the chief can be fired only for wrongdoing, which is not defined in the county charter. The largely ceremonial commission surprised many on Kauai when it voted on Aug. 10 to investigate Freitas.

The suspension letter that Freitas was given by Mayor Kusaka said he was being investigated for allegedly "hindering prosecution" of Officer Nelson Gabriel, who was indicted in 1999 on charges that he had sexually molested his stepdaughter. The letter also said he was accused of "improperly handling" another complaint against Nelson for allegedly sexually harassing a police dispatcher.

Gabriel went on trial in September in the molestation case but there was no indication that the prosecution had been hindered. His attorney presented a long history of Gabriels' stepdaughter making serious accusations against people involving events that never took place. The trial was before a judge rather than a jury and no verdict has been announced.

An interesting moment in the trial came when KPD detectives entered the courtroom and seated themselves behind Gabriel. It was an open but unspoken statement of support for both Gabriel and Freitas.

The criminal charges filed against Gabriel were based on a KPD investigation that took place under Freitas' supervision before he was suspended. Freitas said he is puzzled by the accusation he mishandled the case.

All of this begs the question of whether someone is searching for reasons for the commission to fire Freitas so that he can be replaced by one of the senior department insiders before Mayor Kusaka, who appointed all the commissioners, leaves office a little more than a year from now.

Shortly after Freitas was suspended, Acting Chief Willie Ihu promoted three sergeants to lieutenant, all evidently qualified -- and all of them male and none of them white. Ihu has given his three highest-ranking subordinates new titles, apparently without the approval of the police commission, the mayor or the county council. The former inspectors, including Morris, who filed the complaint against Freitas, are now called "assistant chiefs."

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