Honolulu has budgeted more federal funds toward police enforcement of the mayor’s emergency orders than for relief funds aimed at helping residents pay their rent, utilities and child care expenses, a city spending breakdown shows.

Of the $387 million the city has received under the federal CARES Act since March, only about $69 million has been spent, although about $198 million has been earmarked.

City council members on Thursday questioned how the money is being allocated to city departments.

One agency that stood out: The Honolulu Police Department is set to receive more than $30 million in federal aid and is moving ahead with purchasing new equipment and paying officers extra to enforce stay-at-home rules.

That includes $13.8 million in overtime expenses and $4.68 million in “police services officer” contract positions.

By comparison, only $2.4 million – or less than 10% – of the city’s $25 million Hardship Relief Program fund has been disbursed to people in need.

The Honolulu Police Department used federal COVID-19 relief money to buy 40 ATVs, like this Kawasaki Brute Force that costs about $10,000 apiece.

Honolulu also spent $546,806 on 45 ATVs and UTVs that officers have been riding while patrolling for rule breakers in beaches and parks. 

City Councilman Tommy Waters took issue with the city’s funding priorities at a meeting of the Committee on Economic Assistance and Revitalization on Thursday. Council members received a briefing on all the CARES Act funds allocated and spent so far.

Waters generally directed his comments at a number of city officials who went through the details of how much money has been spent so far, on what, and how much has been earmarked but not yet doled out.

“All this money spent on police to lock people down and keep them in their house when only $2.4 million has been expended to help them,” said Waters, who chairs the committee.

Waters read aloud from a list of HPD expenditures at the meeting. He said many line items were reasonable, such as personal protective equipment to keep officers safe.

However, others struck him as odd, including $118,102.64 for a “simulator for police recruits and officers to engage in simulated force training scenarios.”

“It seems we are spending an awful lot of money on HPD and I’m sure each of the council members are getting an awful lot of complaints from people who are really concerned about the continued lockdown,” he said.

Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters listens to public testimony on Bill 85 and 89

Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters was not impressed with the police department’s CARES Act allocation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Do you think this money could have been better spent, instead of policing locking people down, on educating people on how to stay safe, on working with the hospitals, working with the medical community and getting the money out through that?”

Waters said there is a need for translators to assist non-English speakers, outreach to low-income housing residents and quarantined individuals, mobile health clinics for the uninsured, and more assistance to separate COVID-positive family members from the rest of their household.

“I did want to start with all the good work that you are doing, but it just troubles me when I see all this money being spent on HPD when we could be spending it elsewhere,” he said. “Getting the money out there to the people who need it.” 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell has been relying on Honolulu police officers more and more to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, officers were directed to give mostly warnings, but as of August, Chief Susan Ballard said the department would be taking a more aggressive approach.

As the island’s open spaces were shut down a second time, residents reported receiving criminal citations for walking alone in empty parks and beaches – an activity that poses no threat of COVID-19 spread, according to experts.

Data from the state court system shows between March and the beginning of August, officers issued more than 8,000 citations for alleged violations of the mayor or governor’s emergency orders. People found in violation are guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a $5,000 fine, up to a year in jail or both.

Those who have received the citations say it has added immense stress to an already trying situation. Thousands of Oahu residents are unemployed, have lined up for food distributions and are racking up back rent that they may never be able to pay back. Parents are tasked with entertaining their children and managing distance learning.

The city program designed to help them with up to $2,000 a month in aid has been bogged down by onerous documentation requirements, acknowledged Rebecca Soon, deputy director of the Honolulu Department of Community Services, at Thursday’s meeting.

But the city is taking steps to make it easier to disburse the funds, Soon said. That includes allowing other documents in lieu of bank statements as proof of hardship and eliminating a requirement that applicants prove they have no more than $15,000 in liquid assets.

Honolulu police officers have issued thousands of citations during the pandemic.

Josh Stanbro, the city’s chief resilience officer, said the city has relied on the police department since the beginning of the pandemic when the focus was on enforcing quarantine orders for travelers. Since then, the focus has shifted to policing locals.

“The thing that has worked to drive numbers down when we get into a pinch is a stay at home order,” he said. “The stay at home order largely falls on HPD to enforce, and I know that that’s not popular. I think that nobody – including HPD officers – likes to go around and tell people to break it up, put on a mask, do the stuff that you’re supposed to do.”

Without a health department, Honolulu used the tools it had, and that meant an increased workload for the HPD, Stanbro said. More recently, however, the city has stepped up to fill in what it considers an absence at the state level of adequate testing, contact tracing and isolation efforts. But the police are still enforcing the mayor’s order, the latest of which requires that visitors to public parks, beaches and trails come by themselves. 

“Enforcement really has been the kuleana of the counties,” Stanbro said.

Stanbro also noted that the police department is doing good work, including helping direct traffic at surge testing sites and running POST, a makeshift tent village where homeless people can isolate while they await placement in a shelter or housing.

“In a perfect world, would we be doing more education and behavioral change and would we be able to avoid the pain of a stay at home order? Absolutely,” he said. “But given where we’re at right now, these are the tactics that we’ve needed to employ.”

In a statement, Caldwell Communications Director Alexander Zannes said the $25 million Hardship Relief Fund is just one way the city is helping residents. There is approximately $5 million set aside for “homelessness prevention” and $60 million to help small businesses pay their rent. Considering those pots of money, he said the total spent on helping struggling residents exceeds the total spent on enforcement.

Funds are being paid to families and small businesses at a rate of $1 million per week, he said.

In addition, over $120 million of CARES funds are dedicated to health and human services, according to Zannes.

That includes $11 million for food distributions, $30 million for homelessness programs, $3 million for senior meals and services, $3 million for housing and support services for domestic violence survivors, $5 million for child care for essential workers, $3 million for community-based health care, $3 million for workforce development and $3 million for translation and care coordination for communities with lower English language proficiency.

“We appreciate the Council’s support thus far in the overall strategy of the Administration in prioritizing the need for a safe and healthy environment for our residents, supporting the needs of struggling individuals and small businesses, and preparing for a new COVID-19-era economy,” he said.

“We will continue to work towards these goals and appreciate the support we heard today that a healthy community has to be the priority of this administration, and that’s exactly what our first responders are fighting to ensure every single day while putting their own personal health and safety at risk.”

Deja Ostrowski, an attorney at the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, said there are ways the police can be helpful in responding to the pandemic, such as providing information about resources to residents and enforcing the moratorium on evictions. Writing citations, oftentimes to homeless people, is the wrong approach, she said.

“A lot of people in the community are upset about so much money going to police response when they don’t see it making us any safer,” she said.

Click on the graphic below to sort the data by date, amount of contract and department.

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