Honolulu’s police officer shortage affects more than just the capacity of the city to investigate crimes or maintain public safety; we are facing a crisis of political perception that on Oahu, citizens are being left behind when it comes to government priorities.

The Honolulu Police Department has, to its credit, worked earnestly over the last two years to fill staffing gaps for both officers and dispatchers, but more work needs to be done, particularly by our elected leadership. Nationwide, law enforcement organizations have also struggled with shrinking ratios of officers to residents, and the question of recruiting and retention has plagued many municipalities, not just here on Oahu.

Nonetheless, Honolulu’s competing challenges of homelessness, drug abuse, traffic safety and crime in general make officer shortages felt even more palpably. The potential of a big hurricane or other natural disaster that could plunge the islands into a state of chaos is another potential problem, when one considers manpower problems in law enforcement.

The Honolulu Police Department has struggled with staff shortages for years.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Many locals already feel that the city is falling short in basic upkeep of public spaces, and the thought that investigation of property crimes might now be impeded by short staffing is almost an insult to chronic injury.

Police officers are a vital part of government, and should be the pinnacle priority for funding and staffing. The impetus behind cities as an organizing feature of human civilization has always been people seeking collective protection – often established by police or security forces – and a city that fails to have sufficient police is nothing less than a failed city.

Action must be taken swiftly to remedy Honolulu’s police gap.

First and foremost, city and state officials should push Hawaii’s congressional delegation to seek increased federal assistance for Honolulu’s police. That is why they are there. There are three words local residents need to tell their elected leadership: “Do your job!”

Precedent exists for this method of funding police forces. It is not as if the federal government has left cities and states to fend for themselves when it comes to law enforcement. Historically, Congress has recognized that local police departments and officer recruiting are worth supplementing with federal tax dollars.

In 1994, the 103rd Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, written by then-Sen. Joe Biden, which provided $7.5 billion in grants for the hiring of police officers in all 50 states from 1996 to 2000. More recently, the Department of Homeland Security has also bolstered local police with grant money through the State Homeland Security Program and Urban Areas Security Initiative, which has provided $6.3 billion dollars across the nation in just the last five fiscal years alone.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who has made waves in presidential politics by advocating an end to foreign nation-building and “forever wars,” should especially leverage her credibility as an Army veteran to make mention of the fact that the U.S. government will spend $4.8 billion in 2020 alone just to recruit, train and equip 30,000 police officers in far-off Afghanistan.

Honolulu, which lacks only a few hundred police officers and dispatchers, could easily provide superior pay and benefits to the entire force for a fraction of the tax dollars America spends on other countries’ police forces. Does it really make sense to pay for Afghan police officers when we need more police at home?

In addition to seeking more funding for the recruiting and retention of police, our city should have a discussion about the missions we assign our police officers. For example, instead of using armed police officers to respond to countless incidents involving homeless people, perhaps those functions could be outsourced to unarmed private contractors trained specifically in social work or community sensitivity, leaving the work of true “law enforcement” strictly to the task of stopping crimes that victimize persons or property.

There is also potential progress that can be made through recent advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Scientific research organizations like SRI International have begun developing remotely controlled robots that can assist police officers in making traffic stops; as technology increases, there may be potential to supplement local law enforcement with automated systems to offset manpower shortages.

Since Hawaii has already taken the step of establishing a red light camera committee, Honolulu should take it a step further and think about augmenting police with robotic helpers.

Private companies and commercial property owners have already begun supplementing security officers with unarmed, robotic “data machines” that have a deterrent effect on crime due to the public perception that they are being recorded by cameras; if this low-cost option works for parking garages and shopping malls, maybe it could work in places like Kalihi or Waipahu to help police prevent burglaries.

Most residents are willing to bite their tongue when it comes to incompetence and poor services by government, but one thing that will completely undermine our community is a perceived lack of law and order.

Get us more police, give them the tools they need, and don’t scrimp when it comes to fighting crime.

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