For years, hiring a Honolulu police officer has been a painfully slow process that has contributed to mounting vacancies at the police department.

Potential police recruits had only two chances each year to take the written test for the job. Then they had to wait, sometimes more than a year, to find out if they were eligible to enroll in the city’s police academy.

And in Hawaii, where the unemployment rate is lower than the mainland, few people are willing to wait months for an employer’s phone call to come in.

“By the time they heard back, they had moved on,” said Deputy Chief Jonathon Grems.

HPD 184th Recruit Class graduation faces. 22 feb 2017
Members of the Honolulu Police Department’s 184th recruit class in February 2017. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

There are currently about 260 openings on Honolulu’s 2,030-person force. Department officials say they have been able to shift officers within various units to make sure all the necessary police work is getting done.

In the face of a national downturn in the number of people choosing law enforcement as a career, Honolulu has taken a harder look at how to hire more quickly. Six years ago, HPD set up a separate recruiting website, and this year it’s taken over recruiting and hiring from the city’s Human Resources Department.

The department now offers twice-a-month tests for applicants.

“It’s a very challenging environment for all employers right now since applicants are able to choose from many career fields,” said Michelle Yu, HPD spokeswoman.

A new recruiting approach relies less on the thrill of police work and more on the fundamentals to interest people who may not have considered law enforcement as a career. HPD is focusing on problem solvers from all sectors, but especially those who have backgrounds in social work or psychology.

“We’re moving toward community policing,” Grems said. “We want independent thinkers, people with communication skills. So much of what we do is communication.”

The effort is spearheaded by HPD Chief Susan Ballard, who wants to see the department look beyond applicants with a pure criminal justice background.

The department is rebuilding its image after Ballard’s predecessor, former Chief Louis Kealoha, was forced to resign in the midst of a federal corruption probe.

The department’s recruiting website spells out simply who can qualify.

The website informs recruits exactly what types of offenses would disqualify them: any felony conviction or convictions involving domestic violence, assault, drug sales, child porn, sexual assault or civil rights violations.

In the past, the city had not always done a thorough job of emphasizing that a felony conviction or an addiction to drugs would eliminate an applicant from consideration. That meant the department had to go back and inform those applicants they could not be considered.

“That was happening a lot. They (applicants) didn’t know,” Grems said. “That’s on us to let them know up front.”

With up to 70 officers a year retiring, HPD is also exploring how to create procedures to more quickly hire cops already employed on the mainland. Currently mainland officers still have to attend the police academy before being hired here, where salaries start at $63,000.

The department believes its starting salaries are competitive with other occupations in Hawaii, Yu said.

Police departments nationally are now looking for people who can work with the community to prevent crime.

This summer, plainclothes HPD officers have assisted social workers in getting homeless individuals who are often involved in crimes both as victims and perpetrators, to shelters or to agencies that can help them.

“So much of what we do is social-type work,” said Grems.

The Honolulu Police Department recruiting website’s homepage. Screen shot

There are about 18,000 police agencies in the United States, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association. They employ various approaches to recruiting officers, said Richard Myers, executive director of the group.

HPD’s latest recruiting efforts in Hawaii reflect a national trend toward becoming more generalized when it comes to recruiting.

“Agencies are recognizing that flashing lights and cops in SWAT gear isn’t going to appeal to everyone who would make a great cop,” Myers said. “So you can see more recruitment brochures that feature more of the relational nature of policing.”

Myers points to one of the most popular methods of recruiting that has proven successful. Two years ago, the Fort Worth Police Department began making a series of humorous recruiting videos that feature Batmanstorm troopersChewbacca and Darth Vader. The videos went viral.

But humor aside, the videos worked by showing “Star Wars” characters not as brawny fighters but as awkward, unsure recruits. A spokesman for the Fort Worth department said all its officer openings have been filled.

That’s the dream for HPD right now, Grems said.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author