On a Sunday evening in Honolulu’s busiest police district, Officer Tyiler Montgomery left HPD headquarters on a shift that would be like none that came before it.

That’s one reason he was drawn to the job, the 24-year-old Montgomery says, along with the opportunity to make a difference in the community. No shifts are ever alike, no work day is ever the same, even though he works the same area every shift.

Montgomery is assigned to Beat 178 in District 1, spanning from Pumehana Street to Kaheka Street in the McCully-Moiliili neighborhood, and he’s developed what patrol officers call “beat pride” — including an effort to try to be the first officer to respond to any calls originating from his collection of blocks.

Honolulu Police Department HPD patch.
Civil Beat joined HPD Officer Tyiler Montgomery on a shift earlier this month in District 1, which includes downtown Honolulu, Chinatown and Kakaako. HPD officials wouldn’t allow any photographs to be taken, including of Montgomery. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Montgomery, who joined the department in July 2019 after moving to Honolulu from California, seems to know nearly everyone he encounters.

As he cruises the streets with an ear on his radio and an eye on a mounted computer where calls for police service appear on a city grid, he greets and waves to business owners stepping outside for a cigarette. It’s the same affability he exudes when speaking to people camping on the sidewalk or lingering in a closing park.

Montgomery, whom Civil Beat joined for several hours during his shift earlier this month, is a talker. Whether it be quietly to himself as he monitors traffic, runs license plates and listens to his department radio or whether he’s talking to just about everyone who crosses his path as he responds to a constant stream of 911 calls.

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Over the course of five hours, Montgomery answered calls from a panicked Airbnb host who wanted to report a man leaning over her fence to inquire about a room, a family whose car had been broken into — the window smashed by someone who had stolen phone chargers and a lockbox key from the vehicle — and multiple calls stemming from tripped business alarms or concerned neighbors calling about individuals they considered suspicious.

His handgun and Taser remained holstered throughout the shift. His long gun and body armor remained in his trunk. As the evening bled into the night, Montgomery’s most frequently used tools were ones that were not issued by the department — his communication skills and discretion.

The Honolulu Police Department is now looking to recruit more than 300 officers like Montgomery to fill empty beats amid a staffing shortage, an issue that has been a point of contention throughout the year.

Short staffing not only means that police beats go unmanned. It also results in officers having less time to work with the community, an integral part of police patrol.

“Officer Montgomery and officers like him are not going to be able to build those deep relationships with the community and business owners if we are short staffed,” says Sgt. Stephen Keogh, a patrol sergeant who also works in downtown Honolulu and is vice president of the police union. “Because if we are short staffed, they are going from case to case and responding to calls for service.”

As of the beginning of May, the Honolulu Police Department had 1,828 sworn officers but 349 officer vacancies. This, in part, has led to just 77% staffing on third watch, the shift that covers from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m, in HPD’s District 1, which includes downtown Honolulu, Chinatown and Kakaako, Keogh said.

“We feel as though there is still tremendous opportunity to fully staff the beat so that the community and urban Honolulu can be serviced to the highest standard,” Keogh said.

Staffing Boosts Community Relations

The statewide police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, has been speaking publicly about officer shortages in recent months. SHOPO has become more vocal about the staffing issue throughout the latter portion of HPD Interim Chief Rade Vanic’s tenure as head of the department, which began after former Chief Susan Ballard retired on June 1, 2021.

Keogh said the union is open to discussing the issue with the new HPD chief, Joe Logan, who was recently named to the position by the Honolulu Police Commission but hasn’t been sworn in yet.

“We are more than willing to work with him and give our feedback if he reaches out to us,” Keogh said. “And we feel we have that good relationship to do that.”

Logan has already shared some of his thoughts on improving police staffing during public interviews with the police commission and on a televised forum on PBS Hawaii after he was named as a finalist for the position on May 12.

One idea, he said, involves a reappraisal of the requirements to join the police department in an effort to improve recruitment numbers by disqualifying fewer applicants.

According to data compiled in HPD annual reports, in the past two years just over 5% of the thousands of applicants who sign up to take the police entrance exam have become police recruits.

Last year, more than 2,850 people applied to take the HPD entrance exam. Nearly 900 people passed the test, but just 189 were selected by the department for recruit classes.

In 2020, almost 4,400 people signed up to take the entrance exam. Of those applicants, 1,386 passed the test and the department selected a total of 190 candidates for recruit classes.

HPD 184th Recruit Class graduation faces. 22 feb 2017
Over the last two years, just over 5% of applicants who sign up to take HPD’s entrance exam ended up getting selected for recruit classes. Shown here is the 184th recruit class graduation in 2017. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Meanwhile, the number of officers who make it through recruit class is even smaller.

The most recent recruit class, which ended July 19, graduated just 17 officers after initially starting with 40 candidates.

The class before that saw 18 recruits graduate on April 19, 2021 after it started with 47 recruits.

In total, the department has graduated a total of 296 out of 469 recruits since the start of 2019, although 33 more are scheduled to graduate next month from a class that started with 46 recruits.

Those recruits are the first of nearly 300 new officers the department hopes to onboard over the next year.

New Work Schedules

In the meantime, the department is working on different ways to reallocate resources to increase officer coverage, including the implementation of a pilot “3/12 program” in which officers work three 12-hour shifts instead of five nine-hour shifts.

The pilot program was rolled out in April in HPD’s District 5, which includes Kalihi and Kapalama, and District 4, which includes Kailua, Kaneohe and Kahuku.

“We cannot compromise standards just to hire more people.” — HPD Sgt. Stephen Keogh

So far, the program has shown promising results, Keogh said.

“The staffing has gone from the 60% range to, most days, between 90 and 100%,” Keogh said, adding that the union supports Logan implementing the new schedule department-wide, which could potentially help recruitment.

“They will have four days off each week to spend time with family, friends and do various recreations that we feel actually can help them decompress and give them that recharge they need,” Keogh said.

The Honolulu Police Department is not the only one coping with officer shortages. Other departments on the mainland have had to ramp up recruitment efforts as well.

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Earlier this year, the Memphis Police Department, which is comparable to HPD in size, said it is seeking to add an additional 300 officers through a streamlined application process that did away with the physical agility test, which can be a barrier for applicants.

The Milwaukee Police Department is hoping to bolster its department with nearly 200 new officers by the end of the year amid concerns over dwindling roster numbers.

In Cleveland, the police department is working to fill more than 250 officer vacancies, which would bring its total size above 1,600 officers.

While departments across the country are employing various methods to increase recruitment including bonuses, job fairs and modified requirements, the effort in Honolulu has yet to take full shape until Logan takes command.

Meanwhile, Keogh stressed that it’s important for the recruitment process to remain relatively selective due to the high demands of the job.

“We cannot compromise standards just to hire more people,” Keogh said. “This is a very tough, mentally and physically demanding job and we have to find the right people that have the right character, ethics, morals and, very important, the temperament for this job.”

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