Maui has always been a special place for John Pelletier, a captain in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
It’s where his birth mother lived for a time. And it’s where he proposed to his wife. In a recent interview, Pelletier recounted driving down South Kihei Road in 2004 and telling his wife that he wanted to end up on the Valley Isle.
“She’s always sort of known what the plan was, and has really always been a part of it,” Pelletier said.
He got his chance on Oct. 5, when the Maui Police Commission unanimously selected him to be the county’s next police chief. The commission is expected to take a final vote on Pelletier’s nomination on Wednesday, but that’s largely a formality.
Pelletier, his wife and twin teenagers already are packing up and moving their lives from Las Vegas to Maui.
Pelletier is leaving behind a 22-year career with the department that’s seen him rise through the ranks to manage stations ranging from the far-flung, rural regions of the city’s northwest sector to the urban core and the gambling capital known as the Las Vegas Strip.
Along the way, Pelletier has helped to set up community policing programs, with one in particular helping to revitalize one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. He wants to import those successful programs to Maui as well as revamp oversight of use of force incidents in Maui County.
He’s seen his share of violence, having shot at three suspects and killed one of them, according to reports from Las Vegas media. In 2017, Pelletier was the incident commander for a mass shooting at a country music festival that left 58 people dead. The gunman also killed himself before he could be apprehended by officers. Las Vegas police added two more people who died of their injuries to the death toll in October 2020, bringing it to 60.
He also helped oversee dramatic changes in the department’s use of force policies in an effort to reduce police shootings.
Pelletier will be taking a pay cut. He earned more than $171,000 as a police captain last fiscal year, according to the public salaries website Transparent Nevada. The Maui police chief’s annual salary is $158,851.
But Pelletier says he’s always felt a calling to come to Hawaii, and he believes his experiences and lessons learned in Las Vegas will benefit Maui, specifically in areas of community policing as well as policing in an area heavily reliant on tourism.
“I’d really like to serve and give to the community, specifically Hawaii, specifically Maui. And serve it and not just take from it,” Pelletier said. “I can offer these things — this police experience. And it’s something that I can offer and really give, and I feel that there’s a genuine need for what I can do.”
Pelletier was born in Buffalo, New York. His mother was a schoolteacher; and his father was a police sergeant. Later, his stepmother would become the deputy police commissioner for the Buffalo Police Department.
He moved around the country, living with family in California, Florida, and New York before landing in Las Vegas when he was 17.
He earned a political science degree from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1997 and earned a certificate in criminal justice from the FBI academy in 2019, according to his police chief application.
He managed three different area commands in Las Vegas: South Central Area Command, Northwest Area Command and the Convention Center Area Command, which is responsible for the Las Vegas Strip and was Pelletier’s longest leadership assignment, running from March 2017 to January 2020.
He also managed the K9 section and oversaw critical incidents as the SWAT commander.
Since 2020, Pelletier has been in charge of the LVMPD’s Major Violator, Narcotics Bureau.
He never faced disciplinary action, according to the department records division.
As part of its vetting process, the Maui Police Commission took Pelletier’s fingerprints to check for matches in national and local crime databases. Neither the Honolulu Police Department nor the Las Vegas police found links to any crimes.
He also passed a background check, and was previously granted top secret clearance by the FBI, which required a more intensive background check.
“You guys are getting a really great guy,” Tom Roberts, a Republican Nevada state lawmaker, said in an interview.
Roberts is a former Las Vegas officer and first met Pelletier while working in area command responsible for the southern section of the Las Vegas valley. Roberts was the captain of that bureau while Pelletier had just been promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 2013.
“He was a brand new lieutenant, and it was great. He was eager to learn, and melded with my leadership style,” the assemblyman said. “I was able to delegate things to him and he succeeded in getting things done.”
Pelletier wants to revamp oversight of use-of-force incidents in Maui County, emulating a process that occurred when the Las Vegas police department overhauled its use-of-force policies a decade ago.
He envisions a process that includes the police commission and has multiple layers of review.
Pelletier has more experience with deadly force than many other officers.
In the first incident in 2002, Pelletier fatally shot a murder suspect who pointed a gun at him in a parking lot.
In 2003, Pelletier shot at a robbery suspect who drew a handgun and was running from police at the time. And in 2009, he shot and wounded another man who tried to pull out a large knife in an encounter with police.
The incidents were found to be justified, the radio station KNPR reported.
Pelletier said that using deadly force is the last thing an officer wants to do.
“It’s the thing that affects so many people and has so many ripples,” he said. “You want to make sure you do everything you can in such a way to minimize force when possible.”
Those experiences helped him to relate to his officers, too. Pelletier spent one year as the department’s SWAT commander between 2015 and 2016. In that time, four of the department’s fatal shootings came at the hands of SWAT team members.
Before 2010, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was one of the deadliest police forces in the U.S.
Many of the shootings could have been avoided, and some involved civilians who were killed under suspicious circumstances by officers who acted alone in multiple fatal shootings, according to a 2011 investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
In 2012, the police department voluntarily took part in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing’s collaborative reform program, which consisted of an in-depth analysis of the department’s use-of-force policies.
The DOJ recommended dozens of changes for the department. Pelletier, who worked as a training sergeant at that time, was tasked to help with revamping the department’s use-of-force guidelines and training. New policies put a greater emphasis on deescalation, and officers were instructed to prioritize preserving life as well as intervening if they saw another officer violating policies, Pelletier said.
As a result of the DOJ program, the Las Vegas police also set up a panel to review use-of-force incidents. The department publicly publishes investigations into the use of deadly force as well as a review of each incident that gives recommendations to the officers and to the department.
“That type of critical analysis is only going to make the agency better,” he said.
In Maui, Pelletier hopes to create an Office of Internal Oversight in the police department’s quality assurance division.
A panel of officers would review critical use-of-force incidents and send a report to the police chief on what went right and followed existing policy, what went wrong and how the department can improve.
Part of this review would include the officers involved. The panel would send the report to the police chief, who would also make recommendations. The report would then be sent to the Maui Police Commission for its input.
These reports and reviews would be published publicly, similar to what the Las Vegas police department does.
The commission would be able to review the report and make its own recommendations for the chief to implement. Under this model, Pelletier said that if he decides not to implement changes proposed by the commission, then he would have to write to the commissioners explaining why.
Deadly force incidents on Maui aren’t as common as they are on Oahu or on the Big Island. Since 2010, five individuals have died as a result of police use of force.
Roberts, who was one of Pelletier’s former supervisors, said that connecting with communities and organizations that service them is one of Pelletier’s strengths.
Pelletier said one of his greatest accomplishments was working with other officers and community leaders to revitalize a neighborhood called Sierra Oeste, which for years was plagued by violent crime and gang-related activity.
Pelletier knew of the Sierra Oeste neighborhood before he helped lead efforts to reform it. He described responding to a murder in the middle of the afternoon after a gang shooting went bad while he was still a police sergeant.
The number of violent incidents reported was remarkable for such a small neighborhood of only five streets and 84 buildings. People called it the BG — or baby ghetto. Between 2012 and 2013, the year the program launched, police responded to nearly four dozen gun incidents, more than 100 domestic violence calls, and other fights and robberies, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Residents were rarely cooperative with police. The buildings were decrepit, and most of the owners lived outside Las Vegas.
“There just wasn’t a lot of investment, not a lot of ownership in that community,” said the Rev. Matt Teis, a pastor who worked with Pelletier and other officers.
Pelletier coordinated service providers and community organizations, starting with a simple event: a block party and barbecue that helped officers and the organizations connect with residents in a way they couldn’t before.
Community groups led cleanups of the area, and police partnered with Teis’ church to do more outreach. Eventually, the groups replaced old streetlights with new LED lights and added security cameras. Volunteers also repainted walls around the neighborhood and did some landscaping.
All of that was funded with private donations, Pelletier said.
Significant to the group’s efforts was the creation of a homeowners association that would help area residents police their own community and deter crime without law enforcement intervention.
Teis said that while other officers were instrumental in executing the project, Pelletier was the heart of the movement.
“What we did is create a sense of community,” Teis said.
Police reported calls for crime dropping 75% over the year the Hero’s United Project took place. Teis said crime has appeared to stay down.
Teis and his church, Liberty Baptist, are still involved in other law enforcement efforts. One, called PEACE Shield, involves faith organizations canvassing areas to counsel people in areas where violent crimes, like shootings, occurred.
Pelletier hopes to partner with religious organizations on Maui in similar outreach efforts. He’s already proposed monthly community meetings called “First Tuesdays” to bring residents and police together to discuss issues facing neighborhoods.
Pelletier also wants to bring another idea from Las Vegas called a multicultural advisory committee, which would help connect police to parts of the community that feel as though they are not being heard.
Both Teis and Pelletier said the partnerships have given them access to communities they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach.
“It helped us become a better church, and it helped the cops become better cops,” Teis said.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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