Amid staffing shortages, pressure to work long hours away from their families and a growing challenge to keep up with the soaring cost of living, the Maui Police Department is struggling to keep the officers they have — and attract new ones needed to ease enormous workloads.

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A recent survey of Maui officers by Hawaii’s police union found that about one-third of the officers who responded said they were considering leaving the department in the next two years, citing morale issues, low pay and the promise of better working conditions at jobs elsewhere.

About 160 officers responded to the survey, representing about 60% of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers’ membership on Maui. The way police union leaders see it, everything has gone downhill under the leadership of Maui’s new police chief, John Pelletier, a former police captain in Las Vegas who came “from outside” to replace his embattled predecessor, Tivoli Faaumu.

“As far as we’re concerned, all of the problems from a past administration left with the past administration,” Nick Krau, who chairs the union’s Maui chapter, said during a news conference Wednesday. “We had an opportunity for a fresh start … and we’re not getting it.”

MPD Chief Swearing in
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier started the job in December. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

But others who’ve watched the staffing shortage unfold at MPD say the current crisis has been years in the making, mirroring a national trend among police departments as morale has fallen and resignations and retirements have soared.

On Maui, controversy and allegations of corruption plagued the department long before Pelletier took the helm in December, fueling distrust among the community and an exodus of officers. Vacant positions have steadily increased over the last five years, according to police data, escalating to the current situation in which the department now has more than 100 open spots — representing more than 25% of its ideal workforce.

“Although we did not create this staffing shortage or these other issues, I am responsible now,” Pelletier said during a news conference Wednesday in response to the survey results. “We are tackling these issues each and every day.”

The police union’s survey released this week appeared to be the first of its kind, something that could be used to set a baseline to measure officers’ morale in the years to come. Although some might view it as “premature,” Pelletier said he sees the survey conducted less than five months into his tenure as an opportunity to learn.

“Change is difficult,” Pelletier told reporters. “And change takes time.”

Among its main findings: Most officers felt the department had low morale and said the new chief wasn’t doing enough to help. Many wouldn’t recommend working there and also worried there wasn’t enough staff to respond swiftly to 911 calls. Asked what would lure them into staying on the job, officers ranked higher pay, more manageable working hours and home buying assistance as top priorities.

“We have Wailuku patrol officers who are working 12 hour days, six days a week,” said Krau. “And they’ve been doing this for over a year.”

Nick Krau and Robert Cavaco of SHOPO shared the results of the survey of Maui officers during a news conference. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The shortage of officers in recent years has meant that many of those left on the force are fighting rampant burnout, fueled by endless demands to work overtime that leave them without enough time to care for themselves or their families. And even when they do put in the hours, there’s long been a perception that hard work doesn’t always pay off: For at least a year, stretching back into the tenure of the previous police chief, the department hasn’t promoted any officers to sergeant or any sergeants to lieutenant, Krau said.

Like so many other employers on Maui — ranging from schools to the hospital — the police department is also grappling with the fact the island’s housing costs have soared beyond what its salaries can afford. The starting pay for a police officer, Krau said, stands around $65,000 — not even close to what it takes to afford a mortgage for a home on Maui, where the typical sales price tops $1.2 million.

“Nobody is expecting to get rich,” Krau said. “But getting pay that will allow them to buy a home to live in the community where they work is extremely important for members.”

Before hosting Wednesday’s news conference, union officials spent the earlier part of the week meeting with county officials and other political candidates to share the survey results. Police union officials have said the goal of the survey is to open the door for dialogue.

“The ball is in the chief’s court,” SHOPO President Robert Cavaco said during Wednesday’s news conference.

MPD Maui County Police Department stock
Pelletier has made a number of bold changes since taking the job, some of which have been celebrated while others criticized. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

“If the chief is going to dismiss it, and say everything is hunky dory, then we have no other recourse than to go and put pressure on the mayor, the managing director and the council,” said Cavaco.

“But really, it’s going to be the police commission,” he continued. “It’s the police commission that has the sole authority to hire and fire the chief.”

Since he was sworn into the position in December, Pelletier has made a number of sweeping changes to embrace what he calls “21st Century Policing.” He’s mandated that officers be better trained to respond to situations in which people are experiencing mental health crises and selected a group of community members to advise him, including those who have experience in fighting for Native Hawaiian land access and work to help Maui’s unsheltered residents.

Maui County Police uniform on an officer sitting in the Molokai Police Department parking lot.
Like many employers on Maui, the police department is also struggling to hire people. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

At the same time, a number of other changes sent ripples through the department as Pelletier shifted more officers to patrol and shook up department leadership, some of whom had an adversarial relationship with him from the very start. A number of high-ranking officers retired, a phenomenon that some view as a sign the department is going in the wrong direction; others see it as a long overdue shift away from the previous status quo.

During a meeting held after Pelletier and the police union held their respective press conferences, Frank De Rego, chairman of the Maui Police Commission, called on his colleagues to advocate for more resources that would allow the commission to tap an independent third-party to gauge the chief’s performance and the community’s relationship with the department.

“To take what’s called a point survey — right at one point — doesn’t give you any trend,” he continued. “And it would seem to me if somebody was doing a longitudinal survey, stretching back … they’d probably find that this morale issue probably predated (Pelletier’s) coming on the job.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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