Lee Cataluna: Can Big City Cops Really Fix Hawaii's Police Departments? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Everybody loved Axel Foley.

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He came blazing into an uptight town with his gritty city cop ways and taught the local police a thing or two about how to think quickly, how to move confidently, and the proper way to stop a car chase with a banana. His style may have been different from what the locals were used to, but it was clever and charming. All his street-smart maneuvers were done with the best intentions and in the service of justice.

Axel Foley was played by a young, brilliant Eddie Murphy in the 1984 movie “Beverly Hills Cop,” a fictional, synth-scored romp about a smart, heroic cop from Detroit following a case to LA and showing the Beverly Hills police department how to un-stick its stuck-up-edness, think outside the box, and solve crimes with finesse.

That’s so much like the new Hawaii fantasy of a smartypants cop with big city experience who will blaze into one of Hawaii’s local police departments and show the locals how the job is done, but in a nice, friendly way where all the good cops don’t get their feelings hurt.

Instead of the gritty streets of Detroit, Hawaii’s collective conscience seems to call out to Las Vegas as the most familiar of mainland cities — a place that manages to be crime-ridden, tourist-driven and aspirational all at the same time, while still offering Portuguese sausage, eggs and rice for breakfast and the best ox tail soup around.

Of course a Vegas cop would know stuff local cops don’t know. It’s Vegas. Of course a Vegas cop would know stuff Hawaii cops DO know. It’s Vegas. Vegas is just like Hawaii, but better, or so local lore would have you believe.

Two former Vegas cops are now running neighbor island police departments. Todd Raybuck, who worked for Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for 27 years, rising to the rank of captain, was hired over local candidates for the Kauai police chief job in 2019.

Hanalei, Kauai, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Paddle Out, Protest, Police Chief Todd Raybuck, Kauai Police Department
Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck got himself into some trouble when he made disparaging remarks about one of his officers. Big city cops don’t always understand island ways. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2020

Former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Capt. John Pelletier interviewed alongside candidates from within the Maui Police Department, got the job and was sworn in as chief in December.

Both of them came in with considerable confidence to go along with promises to do things better.

Neither one is Axel Foley.

Raybuck said all the right things about strengthening the police force, respecting the island and learning the culture, until he said the wrong thing and was suspended in April 2021 for making racist comments.  He posted an apology video in which he looks contrite as can be, but when you search online by his name, the incident and a subsequent lawsuit are among the first things that pop up.

Pelletier showed up for his livestreamed final interview with the Maui Police Commission wearing a sharp suit, rings on both hands and a lush green lei like he already got the job. He talked like he already got the job, saying:

“It’s a big deal to be the chief of police. It’s huge. All the eyes are on you because you are the law enforcement executive, and if you make a mistake or you screw up, you tarnish the accountability of the entire agency, so you have got to make sure that you are above reproach in what you do. The troops are looking at you. The community is looking at you. Your staff is looking at you. The commissioners are looking at you. The elected officials are looking at you. The other state agencies are looking at you.”

And just weeks after accepting the position, Pelletier was boldly back in front of the Maui Police Commission asking for a salary $36,000 bigger than the one he accepted to come to Maui. Apparently having the chief make close to $200,000 is now a top priority in overhauling the department. So much for all those eyes looking at him.

Honolulu is still in the process of looking for a new police chief after Chief Susan Ballard retired in June 2021, leaving in a huff because she didn’t like the performance requirements thrust upon her by the Honolulu Police Commission. The finalists for the job have not been announced and the names of the applicants have not been made public, but if a retired Vegas cop surfaces in the top tier, that will be pretty interesting. As the saying goes, two times is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

And as the other saying goes, why bring in people from the outside to make big, awkward mistakes when there are candidates right here in Hawaii who can misstep with the best of them, without the moving costs?

(OK, that’s not a saying, but it should be.)

Axel Foley was fictional. The problems facing police departments in Hawaii are real. Hopefully, the Honolulu Police Commission won’t roll the dice on fast-talking promises.

Because Hawaii is hard. Policing is hard. Often, being careful is much more executive than being bold.

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

"And as the other saying goes, why bring in people from the outside to make big, awkward mistakes when there are candidates right here in Hawaii who can misstep with the best of them, without the moving costs?" Eō e Lee! Hawai'i should invest in candidates rooted within their own communities: expertise abroad does not translate to expertise within Hawai'i. Cultural competency goes a long way in providing culturally-competent service.

KanakaUi · 7 months ago

Those "Big City Cops" don't necessarily have to be from the Big City, what HPD needs is an entire face lift amongst the upper ranks , I feel bringing in an EXPERIENCED Officer that knows exactly how to handle all types of issues that is possible but yet show the leadership needed to gain the confidence of his/hers Departments officers, And 1 of the best ways to do just that is the Candidate has to be open to learning about the diverse Cultures and approach each of the situations with Open ears and open minds. For so long we read in the local news or see on Social Media how the Officers feel disrespected by the upper ranks , So I see it " Not Good idea" to continue with hiring an Officer here in the Islands and give it a chance with someone from another location that wants to put the effort into "fixing HPD" which we all know could be like putting a blind man in dark room and challenge him to find the door knob that will allow him to leave the room" It is possible but its going to be a challenge .

unclebob60 · 7 months ago

This is a tough one for sure Lee. Anyone coming from the mainland, will need to learn the culture. We hear it all the time, Hawaii is unique, but I think you could say that about coming into any new city or town. Hawaii is also unique because it is a big town with a small town mentality, that being everyone knows or is related to someone here. And therein lies the other big issue, the Elephant in the room.As we have seen with the Kealoha's, Hawaii's first family of criminal misconduct by law enforcement, sometimes being from here is the biggest problem in being in law enforcement. It means having to bust or arrest friends, family, or at least someone that knows your sister's in-laws. And that's what hasn't happened recently, public corruption left to continue while law enforcement looks the other way. We all know it takes the Fed's to clean up the city and state because we can't do if for ourselves. It may take an outside chief to do the same for the department?

wailani1961 · 7 months ago

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