In one of her first moves as Honolulu police chief, Susan Ballard has reassigned Sgt. Tenari Maafala, the president of the statewide police union, from his position in the department’s Peer Support Unit to a midnight shift in the bustling patrol district of Waikiki.
The decision was part of Ballard’s desire to revamp the Peer Support Unit, which was started as a mainly volunteer-based program to help officers cope with traumatic events and other stressors, such as line-of-duty shootings, drug abuse and domestic violence.
Maafala, who joined the Honolulu Police Department in 1989, was assigned to the unit in 2007 after stints in patrol — including two in Waikiki — and the Criminal Intelligence Unit.
Ballard told Civil Beat that under Maafala’s leadership, the unit appeared to have lost its way.
She helped launch the program in the mid-1990s as an in-house support group for officers who might be struggling at home or on the job. She said at that time there was a large group of officers who would volunteer to respond to crises, and that they were trained to listen and direct their colleagues to resources, such as chaplains and psychologists, as necessary.
“Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, this unit got pared down to just three people,” Ballard said. “And so these three people were the ones who were responding to everything.”
And they were getting paid to do it.
She said the department surveyed former peer support volunteers who said they couldn’t remember the last time they were called on for help. Their training had also lapsed.
“I knew that the unit was not being run, in my opinion, the way that it was set up to do, so I wanted to go back to the grass roots.” — HPD Chief Susan Ballard
Ballard said the paid officers in the unit, which in addition to Maafala included Don Faumuina and Sgt. Michael Tamashiro, had issues with overtime that, she said, didn’t follow along with the spirit of the unit’s mission, which is spelled out in HPD’s policies.
The definition of the Peer Support Unit, at least according to policy, is “a group of volunteers, including present and retired employees, family members and significant others, trained in support and debriefing functions.”
And while the policy states that overtime can be paid when responding to a “critical incident,” Ballard said that’s not the point of the program.
“This was not supposed to be an overtime issue where they were putting in overtime cards,” she said.
Her plan is to return the unit to what it once was, and add up to three dozen sworn and civilian employee volunteers.
Those volunteers will receive training and be supervised by other officers who are assigned to the unit. According to the department, teams of volunteers will be formed so that they can respond to incidents at all hours.
“I knew that the unit was not being run, in my opinion, the way that it was set up to do, so I wanted to go back to the grass roots,” Ballard said.
She added that she wanted to get the department’s chaplains involved again with the unit, saying that under Maafala’s leadership they were not involved “like they should be.”
Ballard said she asked Maafala if he wanted to remain with the Peer Support Unit on a volunteer basis, but he declined. Tamashiro and Faumuina, who is an at-large director for the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers union, have also been reassigned.
“He’s chosen not to participate in the peer program any more,” Ballard said of Maafala. “It was very disappointing that he chose not to volunteer.”
Maafala did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.
Over the years he’s defined himself as a staunch supporter of officers in peril, both from the dangers they face on the streets and from outside pressures from police commissioners, legislators and members of the media who aim to expose wrongdoing within the ranks.
Maafala has been a particularly vocal defender of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, who was a darling of the union up until he, his wife and several other officers were indicted on federal corruption charges, including conspiracy, bank fraud and obstruction of justice.
“Reality is walking in the shoes of a police officer who sees how ugly paradise is with the criminal element out there.” — Tenari Maafala in 2014
Often Maafala would criticize the media for skewing the facts as it related to the FBI’s investigation. He said it was an attempt to “sell news.”
“I’m not a fan of perception, I will never ever be, because that’s not reality,” Maafala said during an impassioned speech before the Honolulu Police Commission in December 2014, right around the time the FBI had launched its investigation of Kealoha.
“Reality is walking in the shoes of a police officer who sees how ugly paradise is with the criminal element out there,” he said to the commission. “People don’t see the things that we see. People don’t go home with the things that we see.”
Maafala’s views have made him a controversial figure, both for the department and, in some cases, the union itself.
For example, in November 2013, Maafala made national headlines when, citing his religious beliefs, he testified publicly against a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in Hawaii. He said that as a police officer he would never enforce such a law.
“You would have to kill me,” Maafala said.
His comments, which were videotaped, drew swift reaction, including from a gay officer in the department who asked Kealoha to publicly disavow the department from Maafala’s statements.
The chief dodged, however, saying in a written statement that the department didn’t have a position on same-sex marriage and did not consider it a law enforcement issue.
“Like other citizens, HPD employees are free to express their personal opinions as private individuals,” Kealoha said.