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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 9, 2001

HPD problems not unexpected

By Jerry Drelling
Former police reporter and anchor on KGMB-9 News in Honolulu

I knew it was coming.

Retired Maj. Gordon Young first reported the food discrepancies at the Honolulu police cellblock.

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 5, 2001

In the months before I left KGMB-9 News last March, I'd been hearing from sources that two ranking officers of the Honolulu Police Department were targets of an Internal Affairs theft investigation.

I'd seen this before in the HPD when I broke a story nearly 12 years ago involving one of the same individuals.

Shaking my head, I could only wonder why it was happening again. Hadn't prior lessons been learned?

An O'ahu grand jury's indictment of Assistant Chief Ralph Fajardo Jr. and Traffic Division Maj. Jeffrey Owens on felony theft charges is just the latest case of high-profile disappointment inside the HPD.

Fajardo and Owens are accused of spending taxpayer dollars to dine on expensive food — rack of lamb and prime rib — with other desk officers over a five-year period at the cellblock in the Beretania Street headquarters. The money was supposed to be spent on meals for prisoners.

Assistant Chief Ralph Fajardo Jr. is said to have attended only two hours of weeklong training session in Los Angeles.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 30, 2001

I can't help but wonder if Fajardo would be staring at a wrecked career and the possibility of five years in prison today if he'd faced tougher disciplinary action back in 1989.

Fajardo, then a captain assigned to Pearl City, and former Maj. Rudy Alivado (now retired) led a team of four other officers to Los Angeles to attend a 40-hour Gang School sponsored by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The trip cost Honolulu taxpayers $30,000.

The problem is that by the end of the weeklong program, Fajardo and Alivado hadn't earned the certificates of completion their fellow officers had.

In a letter to then Police Chief Doug Gibb, Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block refused to give them certificates because they attended only two hours of the program and "neither of your personnel were seen again." Alivado and Fajardo enjoyed a week's vacation on the public's dime.

Fajardo was slapped with a reprimand. Alivado was given a five-day suspension.

Traffic Division Maj. Jeffrey Owens is accused of felony theft over allegations that officers got free luxury dinners in cellblock.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 27, 2001

Not bad, considering it cost taxpayers $5,000 to send each of them to L.A. A lot of ranking officers felt they should have been charged with theft or forced to repay the public money that they spent. A powerful message had to be sent to the public and to the entire department that such misconduct wouldn't be tolerated lightly. But it didn't happen.

Fast-forward to today and now Fajardo is charged with felony theft. If the prosecution has a strong case, he and Owens will pay a hefty price for those meals.

I've always believed the HPD's refusal to discuss in public internal disciplinary matters on any level — backed by the police union — is not good for the department nor the community. Not because I believe there's a conspiracy to protect officers accused of wrongdoing, but because it can allow for complacency and "the benefit of the doubt" when there should be criminal charges. Citizens, after all, are often charged in similar cases.

The problem is: The unwillingness to publicly reassure the community that misbehavior won't be tolerated is damaging to the entire department.

To the public, it can look as if police want to close ranks to protect their own.

And it sends a bad message to officers who might be considering bending the rules or breaking the law: There's a good chance you'll just get a slap on the wrist if you're caught, especially if you're above the rank of lieutenant.

Alex Garcia sees "double standard" in the treatment of higher-ups and low-ranking officers.

Advertiser library photo • Nov. 29, 1996

Somehow, Fajardo and Alivado both survived that debacle in Los Angeles and went on to have successful careers. But Fajardo, who rose to the coveted rank of assistant chief, now faces accusations that — if true — may waste that second chance he was given back in 1989.

Some of the blame for this current mess lies with past administrations that failed to set a high standard for wayward officers, especially in the upper ranks. That perception has been around a long time.

"It hurts," a somber Lee Donohue told reporters at a news conference, when asked about the charges against Fajardo and Owens. But it apparently didn't hurt enough to explain why he, too, dined on those taxpayer-financed meals without questioning who was picking up the tab. He instinctively deflected the tough questions, saying he couldn't comment because of the ongoing investigation.

I think the police chief owed this community an explanation. He also missed a huge opportunity to try to restore public confidence in his administration. He could and should have said something without damaging the case.

Donohue is fairly popular among the rank and file. And while his loyalty lies with them, he must never forget that he owes the public much more than the best department money can buy.

We need more openness. How could taxpayers pay for the meals of police officers in the cellblock for five years without anyone questioning it? We need answers. Donohue and his predecessors have heard this before, but have not responded.

Lee Donohue owed the community an explanation.

Advertiser library photo • May 1, 2001

Of course, there's a political element to this. A police chief wants the troops to back him. But going public with the department's dirty laundry and getting tougher with discipline can result in a backlash.

It may be coming soon. Alex Garcia, chairman of the O'ahu chapter of the State of Hawai'i Organization of Police Officers, wants Donohue, his top deputies and assistant chiefs to resign. And he's hoping a vote of no-confidence among the rank and file will create enough embarrassment to force the issue.

Garcia sees a "double standard" when it comes to the treatment of administrators and regular officers.

And what about our City Council and mayor?

They are generally the last in line to publicly question or challenge the Police Department. Doing so means they can pretty much kiss goodbye any hope of getting the police union's endorsement in the next election.

To be fair, there has been some improvement over the years in HPD's relations with the news media and the public. And I think the fact that two ranking officers were indicted on Donohue's watch says something about the chief. After all, Donohue personally selected Fajardo as one of his top assistants.

Is it too late for Donohue? I don't think so, because I truly believe he wants to do the right thing. But he's facing a major public relations crisis and not getting much help from those around him.

The days of dodging the tough questions in public must end. Donohue needs to face the community on these issues whenever they come up, and not with a few brief remarks the day an indictment is handed down. If he does the right thing, he'll see better community relations and a huge boost in morale among the rank and file officers who want their chief to be successful.

If Donohue makes the necessary changes, he could retire one day with the kind of legacy his predecessors could only dream about.

Chief, it's time to change tactics. Even if it means seeing to it that all of your officers, regardless of rank, have to pay for their own meals.