When the Honolulu morgue acquired refrigerated trailers to store extra bodies during the pandemic last year, the city also brought in police officers to watch the containers 24/7. 

The city says it wanted to prevent vandalism and protect people’s loved ones at the Iwilei office. 

A year and a half later, though, the county is on track to spend over $1 million on police overtime to provide round-the-clock surveillance of the remains, and some community members are questioning the expense. The money came from the city’s American Rescue Plan allocation. 

A large white refrigerated container sits in the parking lot of the Department of the Medical Examiner during a surge in Covid-19 cases statewide. September 2, 2021.
A Honolulu police officer has been standing guard at the morgue trailers 24/7 since September 2021. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“To me, it sounded like a way to burn pandemic funds,” said former Honolulu deputy police chief John McCarthy. “How many people want to break into a trailer and desecrate a body or steal a body? That’s pretty low on the list of crimes.” 

Police, ranging from officers to lieutenants, can make between $50 and $96 per hour on overtime depending on rank, according to the mayor’s office. Private security is generally cheaper. For instance, Allied Universal is currently hiring guards in Honolulu at about $17 per hour, a job posting shows. 

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Honolulu has been criticized for its record-breaking police overtime spending in recent years. The city was under particular scrutiny during the early days of the pandemic when officers were able to pad their pay by issuing tens of thousands of Covid violation tickets that were ultimately dismissed en masse. A Civil Beat review last year found that overtime is significantly boosting some officers’ pension payments, and a city audit this year found HPD’s ineffective management of overtime will cost the city $6 million in increased pension costs over the last five years.

Nick Chagnon, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii whose research includes criminology, also questioned the use of officers given that many residents have called for more police protection in their neighborhoods. The assignment means one more officer per shift is occupied at a time when the department is struggling with staffing shortages

“If we have communities that are saying that there isn’t enough police presence and response to violent crime, property crime, how is the allocation of a 24/7 detail for these trailers being weighed against response to violent crime and investigation?” he asked. 

The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s office is located in Iwilei near the Institute for Human Services. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

The city feels it was a necessary expense, according to Ian Scheuring, a spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office. Each of the trailers has the capacity to hold 50 bodies, and the city has a duty to protect them, he said. 

“It’s a significant responsibility that requires a significant level of protection, of care, on our part,” he said in an interview. “If that was my loved one in one of those trailers who had passed away and was awaiting an autopsy, then I would certainly look at this situation and say, I would much rather have HPD providing this critical service than a rented security force.”

For a time, the trailers were relying on generators, and there was a concern that someone could cut the power, which would allow the bodies to warm, according to Scheuring. However, the trailers are now connected to the main building’s power source. 

Vandalism in general has been a major issue in the area, according to the medical examiner’s administrative services officer Kira Kimura. Before HPD was stationed there, she said there were problems with graffiti, the windows of Kimura’s car were smashed and someone cracked the office’s glass entryway. The office had private security at the time, she said, and there haven’t been any problems since HPD came in.

Officers can make up to $96 an hour on overtime shifts, depending on their rank. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

“Even when you have cheaper security, things can still happen. Acts of vandalism can still happen,” Scheuring said.

Denny Santiago, a retired Honolulu police officer, said he can understand the need for protection if the trailer contains evidence of a crime, such as a homicide. But if not, he said it’s “questionable.”

“If it’s just normal unattended (death), I don’t think you need a police officer,” he said.

The trailers were brought in at the end of August 2021, at a time when the morgue was over capacity. They were needed because the facility was storing bodies for longer periods during Covid-19, Kimura said. 

“A common misconception was that the trailers were deployed due to the number of Covid-19 death cases,” she said. “The reality is that due to restrictions on gatherings, understandably families wanted to wait until they were able to have a funeral with less restrictions so they could have closure and say their final goodbyes.” 

The outside storage has also been helpful as the morgue undergoes renovations, she said. It’s easier to check bodies in and out of the trailers instead of walking through a construction zone to fetch them from the office refrigerators.

Once the renovations are complete, the trailers will be removed and HPD will leave, too, Scheuring said.

Amanda Ybanez, a member of the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board, said she’s comfortable with the expenditure.

“Do I agree that is a whole lot of money? You betcha,” she said. “Is it necessary? I think so. I wouldn’t want somebody to have their loved one’s body vandalized or have something happen. Everybody deserves that peace of mind.”

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