MICHAEL NAKAMURA / 1947-2006
Beloved chief made officers feel special
Former Police Chief Michael Nakamura, who bravely battled a degenerative disease and injuries after he was hit by a car in his motorized wheelchair, died yesterday at Kuakini Medical Center. He was 58.
Nakamura, who served as police chief from 1990 to 1997, was also a former member of the state Board of Education and a 2002 candidate for City Council.
"He was a good friend, a complete gentleman and one of the finest law-enforcement officers ever to serve the people of the state of Hawaii," said City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, for whom Nakamura worked twice as campaign manager. "He was cheerful, he was upbeat. Despite all the physical difficulties he encountered later in his life, I have never seen a man with such a remarkable spirit. He had a kind of gentle courage and humor that came out even under the worst of circumstances."
Mayor Mufi Hannemann described Nakamura as a "close friend and confidant" who shared his Kalihi roots.
"We worked closely together when I was on the City Council and he was Honolulu's police chief," Hannemann said in a statement. "As chief, he was respected by the community and popular among the men and women who served with him on the police force."
HPD Lt. Letha DeCaires, watch commander for communications and former CrimeStoppers coordinator, described Nakamura as "very beloved" among the department's rank and file.
"There was probably never another chief who remembered every employee's birthday," she said. "He had a way of making every employee -- over 2,000 people -- feel special and unique."
STAR-BULLETIN / DECEMBER 1993
City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, left, who used a golf club to ward off a man attacking a woman, mounted the putter on a bat and gave it to Honolulu Police Chief Michael Nakamura. Nakamura later worked on two of Carlisle's campaigns for prosecutor.
Detective Alex Garcia, Oahu chapter chairman of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the police union, said, "We are all deeply saddened by his passing. He was a great chief and a very warm person. He knew everyone by his first name. He was always active in the interests of the officers. He was a wonderful man."
Nakamura was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that weakened the muscles in his back, hips and shoulders, ultimately leaving him unable to walk. The disease is related to Lou Gehrig's disease, but progresses less swiftly.
Nakamura spent more than a decade in a wheelchair or motorized scooter, but that did not seem to slow him down.
With his mental faculties undiminished, he was elected to the state Board of Education after he was named to fill a vacancy in 2000. He also served as chairman of Hannemann's unsuccessful bid for mayor that year.
But Nakamura's fortunes took a calamitous turn on Sept. 29, 2004, when he was struck by a car in Mililani while in a crosswalk in his electric wheelchair. He sustained severe injuries, including a broken leg, and suffered a stroke as a result of the ensuing surgery.
Remarkably, Nakamura later publicly forgave the driver, Anthony G. Pearce, 21, who last August pleaded no contest to fleeing the scene of the accident and driving without a license; he was sentenced to five years' probation.
Nakamura said he did not want Pearce to go to prison.
"As Christians, we are supposed to forgive," he said. "If anything, I hope he turns his life around."
Nakamura was raised in Kalihi and graduated from Farrington High School in 1965. He served in the Air Force before joining HPD in 1970.
Former Police Chief Lee Donohue, then a detective, remembers Nakamura as a young officer in the records division. Although junior to Donohue, Nakamura preceded him as chief.
"Mike was a great person and a great chief," Donohue recalled yesterday. "He had a lot of compassion for the employees and the people and I'm just sorry to see him go. I think if it wasn't for him, I probably would not have had my chance to become chief. I owe him a lot."
Around 1994 or 1995, Nakamura was still walking on his own but would occasionally stumble and fall, recalled Donohue, then one of his deputies. He pulled Donohue aside and disclosed his illness.
"He asked me, 'When should I tell people that I have this disease?' I said, 'Chief, you'll know when it's time.' He told me how it had affected his family -- because his father had had it -- and he said, 'My body may not work as it should, but my mind will always be sharp,' and I said, 'I think so.'''
As chief, Nakamura is remembered for his efforts to improve morale and institute fair standards for advancement and special training. He set up a special unit to handle child abuse. The HPD Web site lauds his efforts to bring the department closer to the community through decentralization and expanded roles for officers.
One of Nakamura's last public appearances was at the first Kapolei City Lights ceremony last Christmas, when he was honored by the mayor. "His forgiveness of the young man who struck him down was an indication of the kind of man Mike Nakamura was," said Hannemann. "That generous act embodied the Christmas spirit, and that is why we chose Chief Mike to be the guest of honor."
Both Carlisle and Donohue said they talked to Nakamura by phone in recent weeks and he insisted he was fine.
"True to form, he would not admit he was struggling," Donohue said. "Our condolences to his family."
Nakamura taught a class in the administration of justice at Honolulu Community College and served on the boards of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Hawaii, the Blood Bank of Hawaii and the American Diabetes Association.