Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi should redirect some police department funding toward social services that help the homeless and mentally ill and cut down on excessive overtime costs, according to a Honolulu Police Commission subcommittee report released on Wednesday.
Those were the recommendations from a group of police commissioners who were tasked with reviewing Honolulu Police Department spending.
In a report, the group – made up of Doug Chin, Jerry Gibson and Richard Parry – noted that police departments nationwide are reevaluating the role of law enforcement following high-profile police killings last year and international Black Lives Matter protests that called for police reform.
Calls from activists to “defund the police” have been interpreted literally by some jurisdictions while others are pursuing more moderate shifts in resources and responsibilities. Honolulu’s police commissioners are advocating for the latter.
“Consideration should be given to whether the current structure of the department is appropriate and to whether some functions could be better performed by other city or state departments,” the report says.
The report cites Austin, Texas, which reduced its police department budget by 5% and redirected money to housing, domestic violence and substance abuse resources.
The members are recommending that the mayor or HPD consider establishing a task force, which would include members of law enforcement, to review the possibility of doing something similar in Honolulu.
They also recommended that HPD explore the possibility of a new team that is focused on interacting with people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, addiction to substances or domestic violence. The group could be made up of mental health professionals alongside rank and file officers specifically trained to work with these populations.
“These specialists would be the first responders to these issues and trained specifically for the disciplines mentioned,” the report states.
“Doing so might free up standard officers to investigate and respond to general crimes and other duties of importance. Bold steps could potentially set precedence throughout the U.S. as a new way to promote public safety and address criminal offenses while rehabilitating those in need with professional care.”
The proposed concept is similar in spirit to that of CAHOOTS, a program in Eugene, Oregon, that sends mental health first responders to non-criminal calls about behavioral health issues. However, those responders are not law enforcement officers and are not armed. More and more cities across the country are adopting their own versions of the program, and advocates in Honolulu told Civil Beat this week the idea is worth exploring on the island.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard has expressed some openness to sending social workers instead of police to certain calls. At a press conference last year, she lamented that society relies too much on the police to address social ills.
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii said it was pleased to see the suggestion of redirecting some police funding to social services. However, the organization cautioned against creating a new police department division to provide these services.
“We as a community must resist the temptation to give to police the responsibility to address issues in which others are more expert, such as mental health and substance abuse issues,” the ACLU said.
“This is all the more important when the people who would be served by this new division have experienced trauma from their interactions with police, and may still view a police psychologist as, first and foremost, a police officer — someone who carries a gun and handcuffs.”
Funding would be better spent on trained social workers, outreach workers and counselors who will establish relationships with people in need, the ACLU said.
“Considering that the HPD budget is about $300 million and the Honolulu budget for dealing with houselessness is 30 times smaller at about $10 million, there’s more than enough money that can be shifted more effectively,” the organization said.
At Wednesday’s police commission meeting, Ballard said she hadn’t yet received a copy of the subcommittee’s report, and she didn’t weigh in on Chin’s oral summary of it.
Commission Chair Shannon Alivado said a discussion on the report would be placed on the agenda for a future meeting.
His office did not respond to a request for comment on the commissioner’s report on Wednesday afternoon.
Blangiardi’s proposal is subject to approval by the Honolulu City Council, which will review and discuss the police department’s budget at a committee meeting on March 16.
In their report, Chin, Gibson and Parry also took aim at HPD’s overtime spending, which in 2019 made up over 12% of HPD’s approximately $300 million operating budget.
Members noted that overtime spending nearly doubled between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, from about $19 million to $38 million. In 2020, the department spent $31.6 million on overtime and is projected to spend $31.8 million in 2021, according to the report, which doesn’t specify whether it is referring to fiscal or calendar years.
The overtime isn’t just a short-term expense. For officers hired prior to July 2012, their retirement income is based on their “High Three” – the officers’ three most lucrative years of work. That includes overtime pay, even the COVID-19 enforcement overtime that was paid for by CARES Act money.
The commissioner’s report says that officers’ base pay is “relatively low” (starting salary is $65,652 per year), that many have come to rely on overtime to make ends meet and that overtime pay can attract new recruits.
It also notes that department staffing shortages have made overtime essential. As of December, HPD had a 13% vacancy rate for uniformed positions, with 279 vacancies and an authorized strength of 2,143.
However, the report acknowledges “local public criticism of what is perceived excess amounts of overtime taken by some officers.” It notes that some officers are among the highest-paid city employees in the county, as reported by Civil Beat last year.
HPD has taken several steps to address overtime costs, including reducing manpower on some shifts and beats, reassigning officers to other districts and beats if there is greater need there and improving computer scheduling systems to utilize officers more efficiently, according to the report.
The members recommend several additional steps including exploring ways to reduce overtime costs for officers who are called to court, studying whether increasing officer base pay would help fill vacancies and hiring recruiters to find officers throughout the country who want to work for HPD.
“The Department should be encouraged to continue to increase recruiting so the number of officers is increased, and the amount of overtime worked is reduced,” the report states.
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