The Maui Police Commission is charged with investigating the public’s complaints about the police department and then reports whatever it finds to the police chief, who has the authority to decide what happens after that.

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But currently, if the chief disagrees with the commission — a nine-member body of volunteer citizens from throughout the county — there isn’t a requirement that the chief tell them or explain why he or she has a different view from what the commission’s investigation found.

That’s something Maui County voters are being asked to weigh in on as part of a massive undertaking that happens once every 10 years to change how the county government works.

Starting in 2021, a group of Maui County residents who served on the Charter Commission held more than two dozen meetings to review and find ways to improve the County Charter, the document that serves as the county’s constitution.

One of the measures they decided to put on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election asks if the charter should be changed to require that the police chief submit reasons in writing if he or she disagrees with what the police commission finds during its investigations.

MPD Maui County Police Department stock
The Charter Commission weighed a number of proposals that sought to boost civilian oversight of police. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

“If the commission is making findings that there’s been misconduct by police officers, and the chief at the end of the day decides there was no misconduct, then it only makes sense that he or she should turn around and explain that to the commission,” said Loretta Sheehan, a former member of the Honolulu Police Commission.

Sheehan said that’s how things currently work in Honolulu: If the police chief doesn’t agree with the commission, he or she has to explain why.

That was one of the changes she suggested that Maui County adopt when she presented more than a dozen ways that the county government could strengthen civilian oversight of the police department.

Sheehan said she was asked by the ACLU of Hawaii to put the ideas together, which included giving police commissioners the power to review department policies and subpoena witnesses and evidence — a power that the Honolulu Police Commission has, but Maui doesn’t.

Those proposals — and a number of others pushed by police accountability and open government advocates — didn’t end up making it onto the ballot. The only one that made the final cut is the one that would require the police chief to submit disagreements with the commission in writing.

“That was probably the mildest proposal,” Sheehan said. “It’s kind of a no-brainer, but it would be a welcome change.”

The Maui Police Commission, seen here at a recent virtual meeting, would get an explanation from the chief if he disagrees with the group’s findings in a matter. Screenshot/2022

Frank De Rego, who chairs the Maui Police Commission, did not return a request for comment.

In a meeting discussing the measure earlier this year, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, who was sworn in last December, told the council members that he supported the proposal and, so far, hadn’t yet had an instance when he disagreed with any of the commission’s findings.

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

“I think that there should be some transparency involved when … there is that disagreement,” Pelletier told council members. “Folks could actually see what the rationale or the reasoning (is).”

In the meeting, Pelletier suggested that the proposal be tweaked slightly to add that the police chief would have to produce an explanation over a disagreement at the commission’s request — something he said might help things work more efficiently.

Council members supported his suggestion, which is why voters this year will see two versions of the proposal on the ballot.

Proposal 9 is the original proposal that asks if the County Charter should be changed to require that the chief provide a written report to the police commission whenever he disagreed with its findings. The alternative — listed on the ballot as Proposal 9A — would require that to happen “upon the commission’s request.”

The proposal is one of 13 that voters are being asked to decide on during the Nov. 8 election. Some of the other big changes that voters will weigh in on are whether the county should create a separate housing department, operate as a bilingual government and boost access to government records.

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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