If your car was stolen or your home burglarized, chances are police won’t be following up with an investigation but rather with a letter essentially saying they won’t be following up.
The Honolulu Police Department has been short staffed for years, and in April 2018, soon after taking the reins, Chief Susan Ballard told the City Council the department had begun cutting services, including investigation of certain felony crimes by detectives.
To deal with the shortage of patrol officers, HPD spent $10.7 million on overtime in fiscal year 2019 to keep staffing of patrol districts at a minimum 80% level. Another $10 million was spent on other overtime use, for a total of $20.7 million.
“We are over budget,” Deputy Chief Jonathan Grems told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a July 12 interview.
Without overtime, overall staffing remains around 65%, the same as in late 2017 when Ballard became chief.
The $10.7 million in overtime didn’t cover staffing of the Criminal Investigation Division, whose detectives follow up on initial crime reports, find suspects and gather evidence to charge them and help prosecute the cases in court.
The department had 270 sworn- officer vacancies as of June out of a total of 2,143 sworn or uniformed personnel positions. Those numbers remain virtually unchanged since November 2017 when there were 250 vacancies out of about 2,100 sworn-officer positions.
The turnover is constant, as new recruits enlist and retirees leave. In the past five years the number of vacancies has vacillated from 150 to 270, Grems said.
As for the Criminal Investigation Division, all violent crimes are being investigated, police said. Ballard told the City Council last year that “we’re using our staffing on the more high-profile type of cases, and the other ones are not being investigated.”
The “other ones” include vehicle thefts, burglaries and other property crimes.
Grems said HPD investigates all cases with viable leads, but many are “made pending until you get a viable lead or some other related case or investigation brings it back up and makes it where we investigate it.”
So HPD has been sending out form letters to victims of such nonviolent crimes saying the case has been officially documented and the information circulated to police statewide.
“It’s a nice way of saying we have nothing to go on,” Ballard said. “We’ll keep the case active but we’re not actively pulling those cases and knocking door to door to develop leads.”
There were 28,651 property crimes reported on Oahu in 2018, according to HPD’s annual report. A breakdown shows 3,544 burglaries, 20,945 thefts and 4,162 motor vehicle thefts.
As for catching the crooks, there were 131 arrests for burglary in 2018, 1,448 for theft and 35 for motor vehicle theft.
CID also exceeded its overtime budget, Ballard said.
The chief last week defended her decision to prioritize patrol staffing, saying each district has a certain number of beats and a certain number of officers required to cover each beat.
“Which one do you not want to fill with a police officer?” she told the Star- Advertiser. “The response time will be more. We should be at 100%.”
Her goal is to incrementally increase patrol staffing 5% yearly. Doing that without boosting recruitment would likely cause overtime costs to skyrocket even higher. And increasing staffing from 65% to 100% all at once would result in “a huge increase,” Ballard said.
“It would have totally overwhelmed the city,” she said. “That’s why we chose to incrementally increase it.”
If recruitment doesn’t ratchet up staffing, Ballard said she will continue to return to the City Council with requests for more money. The Council and the managing director have been supportive, she said.
Ballard said she inherited the staffing shortage and criticized previous chiefs for their failure to get more funding. She said Lee Donohue, who served as chief from 1998 to 2004, was the last HPD head to ensure patrol staffing was at 80% or more and also pushed for hiring more officers.
Grems said understaffing of police departments is a nationwide issue. Many different issues contribute to the problem, including additional scrutiny of law enforcement actions in response to shootings and other incidents over the past five to 10 years.
Other factors may be that Hawaii is enjoying low levels of unemployment, meaning there are plenty of job opportunities, and that younger generations do not “typically stay with one job anymore,” he said.
The base salary for a police recruit is $64,368 per year; the base starting salary after one year is $66,900.
HPD is undertaking several actions to boost recruitment, including a shortened academy for police officers from other jurisdictions. A recruit without experience normally undergoes six months of academy training and three months of field training. Under the accelerated program for recruits with police experience, the six-month academy training period would be cut in half.
Maj. Aaron Takasaki-Young, who heads HPD’s Human Resources Division, said the program is in its developmental stage. “Hopefully we want to roll it out as soon as we can by 2020,” he said.
HPD also is trying to fill civilian vacancies in parking enforcement as well as creating new positions to deal with other noncriminal activity such as park-closure violations.
To cut patrol work, HPD has been rebuilding its online reporting system. However, much of the department’s information technology systems need upgrading, officials said. In the meantime, the city’s Honolulu 311 app can be used to report certain nonemergency issues, minimizing use of patrol officers.
To get more young people interested in a career in law enforcement, HPD offers a Youth Citizens Police Academy for teens ages 13 to 18 that is conducted over three Saturdays. The introductory program is meant to excite and inspire participants to join the year-round Law Enforcement Explorers Program for youths ages 14 to 20, and then join the cadet corps.
Takasaki-Young said the department is looking for individuals with a high degree of integrity, accountability, maturity and professionalism.
“We’re no different” from any other employer, he said. “We’re looking for the best workers … with the authority to enforce laws.”
Grems said HPD also is trying to better reflect the community, specifically by adding more women to the force. HPD has been holding outreach programs featuring female speakers who share their career stories and the benefits and rewards of being a police officer.
Ballard said, “We’re trying to target groups we never targeted before … people who never thought of this as a career,” such as social workers.
HPD is additionally working with colleges to tailor criminal justice classes to be compatible with police academy curriculum so students can essentially earn credit for those courses.
The HPDFIT program is a way for potential applicants to learn about the pre-employment physical component of becoming a police officer. Participants meet with recruiters at a beach park and do workouts that may include push-ups, sit-ups, a 300-meter run and 1.5-mile run.