The confusion almost cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

Illegal drug use? Vandalism? Trespassers?

“Please contact your local police department,” a handbook for Hawaiian homelands residents recommends.

But, according to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, local police sometimes respond inadequately, unsure that they have jurisdiction.

County police departments say there should be no such confusion: Officers answer all calls, Hawaiian homelands or not.

Data backing up either assertion is sparse, but the misunderstanding almost cost taxpayers $1 million. It still might, if DHHL can’t resolve the issue by next year’s legislative session.

DHHL wanted the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 490, which would have given the Hawaiian Homes Commission its own police powers, allowing the chair to hire law enforcement officers dedicated to Hawaiian homelands. The bill died after passing two committees.

The initial ask was $500,000 dollars.

The problem, DHHL testified, is that police responses to crime on the homelands are “inconsistent across the different counties.”

DHHL sign
The DHHL said that police responses to crimes on homelands are inconsistent and pressed for its own enforcement arm. (Provided/DHHL)

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who supported the bill, said her constituents on the Waianae coast have been calling for law enforcement dedicated to Hawaiian homelands.

“What we often hear from the beneficiaries is when they call HPD, HPD often has a hard time, they’re busy,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s unclear to me exactly what the issue is. It could just be that HPD is overwhelmed.”

The Honolulu Police Department is short between 300 and 400 officers.

For his part, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole says he introduced the bill as a courtesy to the Hawaiian Homes Commission.

Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, a Hawaiian Homes Commission member and chair of the Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board, has been particularly vocal in calling for the bill. She says HPD officers sometimes refuse to step onto Hawaiian homelands to enforce against game rooms, saying it’s not their jurisdiction.

DHHL publicized HPD’s bust of a Waimanalo game room in 2021, but similar coverage is hard to find.

“We continue to hear from beneficiaries that there’s no enforcement” against drug distribution, game rooms, abandoned vehicles and squatters, Kahanamoku-Teruya said.

“Usually the police will go, ‘That’s a state property. Where’s your enforcement team?’” she said.

Thomas Haia, a homesteader for 28 years, testified, “On any given day, I observe three or four police vehicles patrolling the non-homestead neighborhood directly across the highway, yet it is rare to find an officer patrolling our homestead neighborhood.”

HPD personnel and DHHL enforcement team members, who lack police powers, shown during an investigation at a Hawaiian homestead property in Waimanalo into a suspected illegal gaming room Feb. 4, 2021. (Screenshot/DHHL press release)

The Right Call?

Local police departments refute that characterization.

Honolulu Police Department officers routinely respond to crime reported on homestead lands, department spokesperson Michelle Yu said. However, HPD does not track whether calls originated from, or officers responded to, homelands, Yu added.

The Maui Police Department responds to all public safety calls throughout the county, department spokesperson Alana Pico said. MPD also does not track whether those calls come from Hawaiian homelands.

“As far as I know, we’re going to take the same action,” said Hawaii County Assistant Police Chief Andrew Burian. Homesteaders “have the same right to safety, and we’ll deal with situations there just like anywhere else,” Burian said.

The state’s new Department of Law Enforcement opposed the bill’s initial version, saying it ran contrary to the Legislature’s decision to consolidate state law enforcement by standing up the department last year.

DLE came around when the next version of the bill moved the officers under its roof.

The Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations said it was “extremely concerned” about crime on the homelands but questioned DHHL’s priorities.

“DHHL has a well-known and deplorable history of fulfilling its core mandate of issuing homestead lands to native Hawaiian beneficiaries,” SCHHA testified. “Not only would it be inadvisable to further distract DHHL from its core mission, its current capacity is simply unable to operate a statewide law enforcement division.”

Kapua Medeiros, a member of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board, questioned the intention behind creating law enforcement specifically for Hawaiian homelands.

“I find that a little racist,” Medeiros said. “Are they saying there’s more crime on Hawaiian homelands?”

“All it makes us Hawaiians think is they want to evict more Hawaiians or construct TMT,” Medeiros added.

“That is 12 officers dedicated to a place like Mauna Kea,” she said.

Fixing A Misunderstanding

By Tuesday, the revised version of the bill sought $1.1 million to fund 12 full-time law enforcement officers dedicated to Hawaiian homelands but free to act elsewhere too. The bill ended up in the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, where Rep. David Tarnas deferred it after identifying the jurisdictional confusion.

Tarnas asked DHHL Deputy Director Katie Ducatt, who had testified, why police don’t just do their job on Hawaiian homelands.

Ducatt cited the Hawaii Supreme Court’s 1995 ruling in State v. Jim that says criminal laws apply to homelands. “Nonetheless, police departments — and it’s across the individual counties — we have run into issues where they kind of take this hands-off or ‘we don’t know’ approach,” she said.

Tarnas asked whether some police don’t respond at all.

“Of course this is anecdotal but we do hear from beneficiaries that police won’t do anything,” Ducatt said.

Tarnas pressed: “Have you engaged in any direct discussions with the county police departments to identify what the misunderstanding is and then seek to correct that misunderstanding so that the police would actually do their jobs? Because it sounds like it’s really based on ignorance of what the law is.”

Ducatt said that DHHL has a memorandum of understanding with Hawaii County that governs police response to homelands there. “But I don’t believe we have MOUs with any of the other counties,” she said.

“And it’s helping in Hawaii County?”

“I’m not sure about that.”

Tarnas urged Ducatt to try to resolve the confusion over the next year by negotiating MOUs with the other counties. Should that fail, he said, “then I would encourage you to come back and ask for the Legislature to take action to meet this unmet need.”

The case law of State v. Jim originates, in part, with Patrick Kahawaiolaa, 78, who was born and raised on the Hawaiian homelands of Keaukaha in Hilo. 

“The big claim to fame was we got arrested protesting the Walmart” in 1993, he said.

His case made it to the Hawaii Supreme Court, where he and another man, Harold Uhane Jim, argued that county police didn’t have the authority to arrest them on Hawaiian homelands. They said that the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act limited the state’s powers on Hawaiian homelands, citing Section 206: “The powers and duties of the governor … shall not extend to … Hawaiian homelands.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court found that the homelands within the state’s boundaries fell under the state’s criminal jurisdiction.(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The section Kahawaiolaa cited “does not preclude enforcement” of state and county criminal laws on Hawaiian home lands, the court said.

“An express statement that state laws do not apply on Hawaiian home lands would be necessary to support the Appellants’ arguments,” the court said.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act’s limitation on executive power “was never intended to limit the police power of the State in the fashion envisioned by the Appellants.”

The court affirmed a lower court’s finding Kahawaiolaa and Jim guilty of second-degree criminal trespass.

That experience made Kahawaiolaa wonder why the state would need to dedicate law enforcement officers to Hawaiian homelands.

“Did they have the power to come and arrest us before? Or is it now illegal? Or was it illegal then? Do I have recourse?” Kahawaiolaa said.

He considers it a waste of taxpayer money: “They’re trying to create things to cover something that’s been covered.” 

Still, Kahawaiolaa has noticed the county police can be selective in their responses: He sees them responding to domestic violence calls but less frequently to drug crimes, though no data can confirm this.

“Would the police not go in Kapolei or Aiea Heights or Hawaii Kai if a game room was there?” he said.

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