With the resignation of Hawaii Police Chief Paul Ferreira in September, the Big Island becomes the fourth county since 2019 to undertake the process of filling the critical law enforcement leadership position.

Big Island locator map

The role of police chief in any county is a powerful position. Replacing a chief requires volunteer members of each county’s police commission to recruit, evaluate and hire the best person to enforce state and county laws.

The State Of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the police union, would like the commissioners to expand their objectives in hiring police chiefs to reduce turnover, increase public accountability and create better departments.

At its next meeting, the Hawaii County Police Commission will get its first look at applications screened by the county’s human resources department and begin the interview and public hearing process. Forty-four applications were submitted for the job.

The Hawaii Police Commission will begin reviewing applications for a new chief Oct. 24. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2019

At its Aug. 26 police commission hearing, chair John Bertsch asked the commissioners to develop a list of questions for candidates “in the area of recruitment and retention, budgeting, manpower, traffic, crime, drugs, concealed carry, and things that are important to the commission and constituents in the areas that you represent.”

Hiring A Consultant

Steven Levinson, a former Honolulu police commissioner who took part in the selection of Susan Ballard as Honolulu police chief in 2017, said the city hired a consultant to help find a new chief but that added time and expense.

“The recommendation was we hire a consultant firm that specialized in these kinds of hires and had been involved in a lot of police chief hirings across the country,” Levinson said. “We accepted the idea that a consultant would be a useful element in the process but it took almost a year to get the consultant squared away.”

The city hired Pennsylvania-based human resources firm EB Jacobs for $75,000 to find and evaluate Honolulu police chief candidates.

Honolulu Police COmmission Steven Levinson during editorial board meeting.
Former Honolulu Police Commissioner Steven Levinson says the county police commissions are the correct group to select new police chiefs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Levinson said commission members are volunteers with a somewhat limited understanding of how police departments are run, but that doesn’t mean they cannot find a good candidate for the job.

“Assuming that these folks have been around the block a bunch of times and are smart and thoughtful and have sense of the kind of candidate they are looking for, I don’t see why they couldn’t create their own criteria,” he said. “It would save a lot of time and a lot of money.”

Stephen Keogh, SHOPO’s vice president, said hiring a new chief is the most important decision any commission will make.

“It is important that these police commissions seek input from all stakeholders first — both internally and externally — and then clearly identify the qualities they’re looking for, and the selection process and timeline on the front end,” Keogh said in a email. “No process is perfect, but it should be clear, it should be transparent, and it should be timely.”

According to online recruitment company Zippa Inc., 29% percent of police chiefs across the country hold their positions for only one to two years and 11% leave after less than one year. But 60% stay in their jobs for three years or more.

Hawaii County Chief  Ferreira was with the department for 40 years and became chief in 2016.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, a former police captain in Las Vegas, was hired in December 2021, and Kauai Chief Todd Raybuck, also a former Las Vegas police captain, took the job in April 2019.

In Honolulu, Chief Joe Logan was sworn in on June 14, 2022 after the position was vacant for more than a year. Another consultant, PSI Services was hired at a cost of $145,777 to help with the search that resulted in Logan being hired.

Police Work In Hawaii Is Unique

Keogh said policing in Hawaii is different than anywhere else in the U.S. and chiefs need to understand that.

“Unless you’ve lived on an island, unless you’ve patrolled an island, it will be hard for you to understand those differences for a long while. That’s not to say that a mainland chief cannot do a good job. They can, but we believe a premium should be placed on qualified internal candidates and then in-state candidates,” he said.

Levinson said the work of a police chief includes being organized, creative and decisive.

“Police departments are now called upon to do community outreach like partnering with social service agencies to address homelessness. Drug addiction is handled up front as police officers encounter people under the influence, sometimes committing crimes, sometimes just blobbing out on the sidewalk. It’s a different job more and more,” he said. “The chief has got to be strong in organizational thinking and creative thinking, and in smart decision-making.”

The Hawaii chief’s position pays $153,270 a year.

The applicants’ identities have not yet been made public. Commission members are reviewing the applications and will discuss them at the next commission meeting in executive session. The commission will then select a pool of applicants to continue the process and their identities will be disclosed. No timeline has been given for the entire process.

Hawaii police commission chair Bertsch did not respond to a request for an interview. At the Aug. 28 commission meeting, he said he would like to host public meetings in Hilo and Kona to allow the selected applicants and the community to provide testimony.

Keogh said input from department employees and the public is critical.

“If police commissions really valued the opinions of front line police officers, they would create a way to get input continuously, not on a random day a few weeks before they hire a new chief. They should be seeking input from the employees while chiefs are still in their jobs, so they’d understand what works and what doesn’t,” Keogh said in an email. “Having people line up to speak two minutes at a commission meeting is one thing, but actually understanding what the public needs from its police department and who is best to lead the organization is another.”

Levinson said there was very little public testimony during the selection of Chief Ballard. After Ballard resigned, the public was allowed to be more involved with the hiring process for the next chief, including posing questions to the candidates during a live 90-minute episode of the PBS Hawaii program Insights.

SHOPO vice president Stephen Keogh wants police commissions to seriously consider officer and public input when hiring a new chief. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Expanding Department Goals

Keogh said simply hiring a new chief should be part of a broader goal of finding strong, consistent leadership and building a department focused on public service.

“We have to have a method to assess their effectiveness and progress, and we have to find a way to inform the community on where all that stands on a regular basis. That doesn’t happen now,” he said. “Our police commission should lead on changing that dynamic. They should ask, how do we put a chief in for more than five years and how do we support that person and hold them accountable at the same time?”

Police commissions statewide have the sole authority to hire new chiefs without approval from their county councils or mayors, and Levinson said that is how it should be.

“I think that way of doing it depoliticizes the process,” he said. “If the county councils, did it, if the mayor did it, I think that would be purely political. It would perpetuate some of the worse qualities of police chiefs.”

The Hawaii Police Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Friday in the County Building Council Chambers, 25 Aupuni St., Suite 1401 in Hilo.

Written testimony can be mailed to the commission at 101 Pauahi St., Suite No. 9, Hilo, Hawaii, 96820 or emailed to Charisse.Correa@hawaiicounty.gov.

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