Four finalists vying to become the Big Island’s next police chief faced questions from the public and the Hawaii County Police Commission on Tuesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center.

It was day two of a public process to vet the candidates that started on Monday in Hilo.

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During the public comment section, two current police officers addressed what they consider a dire need for training and said they hope that whoever gets the job will make it a priority.

Unlike many other law enforcement jurisdictions across the nation, Hawaii County has no requirement that police officers receive what’s called annual recall training. The training provides instruction in areas such as use of force, firearms, hazardous materials and legal matters.

Four candidates vie to become the Big Island’s police chief. From left, Sherry Bird, Benjamin Moskowicz, Edward Ignacio and Paul Applegate. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Justin Gaspar, a vice officer and K9 handler with 13 years of experience with the Hawaii Police Department, told the police commission that the officers “have never been given the opportunity to be retrained.”

Last year a report by the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing recommended that minimum standards be set for police training across the country to improve outcomes for officers and the public. The report came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in police custody and recommended that officers receive more training in violence de-escalation, racial profiling, and the duty to intervene when another officer uses excessive force, among other areas.

Gaspar said he hoped he wasn’t committing “career suicide” by speaking out. He described a strong need to improve and standardize operations between the east and west sides of the island which are run like “two completely different worlds.”

Detective Chad Taniyama, a 25-year veteran of the Hawaii Police Department, echoed Gaspar’s call for more mandatory training as well as a long list of other needed changes. Among them: consistency in scheduling and transparency in the promotion process.

Taniyama said he’s at the end of his career which is why he chose to speak out at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Upper management has failed,” Taniyama told the commission. “They have failed to look to the future.”

He urged the commission to select an outside candidate for the police chief position, someone who will bring fresh eyes and needed change. His top choice is Edward Ignacio.

“He’s our fresh start,” the detective said in an interview with Civil Beat.

Originally from the Big Island, Ignacio spent 21 years at the FBI as senior resident agent based on Oahu before retiring a year ago. Previously, he served as a police officer in Honolulu and on the Big Island.

The other finalists for the position are Paul Applegate, a captain in the Kauai Police Department’s Investigative Services Bureau; Sherry Bird, a major on the Big Island’s police force who supervises 237 sworn and non-sworn employees; and Benjamin Moszkowicz, a major in the Honolulu Police Department.

Police commission member Denby Toci asked Bird about her decision to accept a multi-night stay in a hotel room provided by the Ironman Triathlon when she was on duty last October.

Bird said she was leading police operations for the event and the hotel room allowed her easy access to a restroom and a bed to catch a few hours of sleep.

“It was just part of my official capacity running police operations during the event,” Bird said.

Commissioner Dylan Andrion read aloud the legal definition of what constitutes a gift. He asked Bird if after hearing it she wanted to change her position on the matter.

“I would revisit it,” Bird said.

But she insisted that she only used the room as part of her official duties and did not consider it a gift.

Toci said she brought the matter up because the commission had obtained a copy of a hotel receipt for Bird’s stay and was wondering if the police major had filed a gift disclosure report. Bird said she had not.

A licensed family therapist, Toci also asked candidates about mental health and wellness care for officers and whether they would make it a priority if they became police chief. She noted that Hawaii island has had several cases of police officers who have killed their wives in domestic violence incidents.

All said the need for better access to mental health services for officers is important because of high-stress situations they deal with constantly.

Creating a wellness unit within the police force is something Moszkowicz said he would prioritize if he becomes police chief. He said he’s seen the benefits of having a professional counselor available to Honolulu police officers and he has a specific therapist on speed dial.

“I’m not a customer but I make a lot of referrals,” Moszkowicz said.

The process is done anonymously, and the therapist encourages officers to use pseudonyms when scheduling or showing up for appointments to preserve their confidentiality, he said.

Police Commission Vice Chair Thomas Brown asked Applegate about a discrimination lawsuit he filed last year against the Kauai Police Department and Kauai Police Commission. Applegate alleged he was passed over for a promotion because of his Japanese ancestry. The case continues to make its way through Hawaii District Court.

Applegate said the lawsuit would in no way inhibit his ability to perform as Hawaii police chief, if offered the position.

“I’m a person who will not stand by idly if someone is being discriminated against,” he added.

The police chief job opened up after Paul Ferreira retired on Sept. 1 after serving in the department since 1982.

Brown said the commission expects to make a decision on who to pick before the end of December.

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