Insights & Stories

Leading Women: Chief Susan Ballard Brings Strength and Balance to HPD

Reading time: 6 Minutes

March 22nd, 2018

In early 2017, Susan Ballard turned in her paperwork to retire from a 32-year career with the Honolulu Police Department. She was ready to hang up her hat to pursue other interests, like volunteering at the Humane Society or SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), taking tennis and guitar lessons, and traveling the world.

But as fate would have it, instead of retiring, Ballard would become Chief.

“I had to go down and say, 'Excuse me, but can you pull my retirement papers?'” she chuckles.

Just after deciding to retire, the Chief of Police position opened, so Ballard applied in March of 2017. However, she kept her backup plan to go through with retirement, in case things didn't work out.

It wasn't until her final interview with the police commission that the reality of what was unfolding settled in. Ballard was quite comfortable with the interview questions, and had walked out feeling good:

“I thought to myself, wow, this could really happen!”

And it did—Ballard was sworn in as the first female Chief of the Honolulu Police Department on October 25, 2017. The day will be forever echoed in history, but her leadership in the years to follow will be the true indication of how she is remembered—and the new Chief has her work set out for her.

Ballard is stepping up to the helm of HPD in the aftermath of a 2017 corruption scandal that tarnished the department in the public eye. Among her first initiatives, Ballard's focus is restoring trust in law enforcement, so that the community can have renewed confidence in the department, and police officers proud of their work. To that end, she has been promoting a “community policing" philosophy, which means less of a warrior mentality and more of a guardian one—mediating a situation rather than having the mindset of going in there to “run, gun, make the arrest.”

Another priority has been tightening departmental operations. Ballard has been reorganizing the department for efficiency as far as staffing patrol positions and the recruitment process. In trying to understand how to fill officer vacancies across many locations, Ballard saw that it was taking more than a year from the time a successful applicant applied until the time they started at recruit school. Working with the City, Ballard cut the process time in half, so they are now able to fill much needed vacancies sooner.

Measures are also being taken to fortify areas of community protection. A focal point is elder fraud. Family members feel understandably embarrassed and angry when a parent or grandparent falls for a scam and loses their life's savings. Ballard urges people to report these scams.

“It's sad to see people taking advantage of our kupuna,” she says, but the only way the police department can address these crimes is if they know about them.

Furthermore in the area of community protection, her department is also attentive to issues of our time, like cyber-crime and -fraud. Ballard wants her officers to receive training on phishing, skimming, hacking and cyber-security, so they recognize these crimes if they come across them in their day-to-day work.

As has been the case through the years, HPD continues its community outreach programs. When talking to students, Ballard explains that a police career doesn't necessarily mean being "out on the beat." Ballard's own career spanned a range of divisions—finance, training and central receiving, criminal investigations, narcotics and vice—and she worked the Downtown and Chinatown patrol district. It was this diverse background and training, along with the support of respected mentors in the various divisions, that helped prepare Ballard for her latest position.

Ballard's journey to filling one of the most powerful roles in the state commenced with degrees in health and physical education, as well as sports medicine. A North Carolina native, she relocated to Los Angeles, before moving to Hawaii in 1982:

“There was a sale on plane tickets—$89 one way. So I jumped on a plane, put my car on Matson, and here I am.”

On arriving in the islands, she managed Ala Moana McDonald's while attending college, and then got a job as a fitness director and instructor with HMSA.

Following a police career had never entered Ballard's mind, until she made friends with some police officers while working out at the Central YMCA. They encouraged her to take the HPD exam, and she decided to go for it. She was hired on to the force in 1985. Ballard prospered in the department, and served in a number of different leadership roles over her long career leading up to Chief of Police.

Today Ballard's interest in fitness continues, and when the Kailua resident isn't wearing her uniform, she might be engaged in lifting weights, going for a run or taking a hot yoga course. Or settling in at home with her four furry companions—a golden retriever, English setter, border collie-spaniel mix, and Koa Kitty, a rescue cat.

Ballard's message for fellow women aspiring toward leadership roles: “Don't ever allow someone to tell you that you can't do something."

Ballard was fortunate to have encouraging friends when she first decided to apply to the police force, but she also had the most important factor for success—an upbeat attitude.

Thirty-two years after entering the academy, she's standing in the shoes reserved for the highest attainable level in a traditionally male-dominated field. And she's come all this way with a strong and positive spirit, exemplifying the saying that you can do whatever you put your mind to.

Meanwhile, the honor of being selected has taken time to sink in. Seeing the “Chief of Police" sign on her door still sometimes amazes Ballard, who has been receiving a warm welcome from the force and the community. In return, she's very supportive of her officers. In the aftermath of the corruption case, she acknowledges that they might make some mistakes, but that "99 percent of the time, the officers are going to do the right thing and take care of their community.” She stands firmly behind them, acknowledging that they are doing great work.

An event as momentous as becoming the inaugural female chief of the Honolulu Police Department doesn't seem to faze Ballard. It's the “female” part of the equation that doesn't strike her as a big deal. She points out that women today have every opportunity available to them, thanks to all the women who have led the way and broken the glass ceiling. With their shoulders to stand on, society is ripe for the next generation to pursue their passion. In fact, Ballard puts it succinctly for today's young women:

“Do exactly what you want to do.”

And with a touch of North Carolina congeniality, she adds that if the community needs anything, “Just give us a holler.”


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