Lee Cataluna: Maui's Quotable Police Chief — And The Quotes You Might Have Missed - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Chief John Pelletier has not been shy about expressing his frustration and his feelings during numerous encounters with the media.

With all of the news happening and so much to cover in Hawaii right now, one of the most read stories on this site this week is a piece that is almost two years old.

It’s a profile of John Pelletier, the native New Yorker and former Las Vegas police captain when he had just been named the new chief of the Maui Police Department. His selection was unexpected. In bringing an outsider like him to an insular organization like an island police force, the Maui Police Commission clearly wanted someone different.

Well, they got him.

Amid the intense fire recovery efforts on Maui, Pelletier has stood out for expressing the frustration that many local leaders are surely feeling but have held inside.

At live-streamed press briefings, government leaders and first responders stand stoically against the back wall, walk to the podium when it’s their turn, and answer questions in calm, measured tones.

In contrast, Pelletier sometimes starts talking before he even gets to the microphone. There was one moment this week when, as Pelletier walked up to answer a question from a reporter, both Gov. Josh Green and Mayor Richard Bissen exchanged a look like, “Here he goes again” and Green jokingly put his hand on Pelletier’s arm like a manager telling a boxer to calm down and stay focused.

The chief has let his verbal fists fly. He told the gaggle of mostly non-Maui reporters badgering him for the total number of fatalities before recovery efforts had even started, “You guys want the information fast? Or do you want it right?”

At another press briefing, Pelletier scolded journalists who disobeyed orders to stay out of Lahaina town while the police were still looking for victims.

“We pick up the remains and they fall apart. So when you have 200 people running through the scene yesterday, including some of you, that’s what you’re stepping on.”  He pointed his finger accusingly at reporters in the crowd.

“I don’t know how much more you want me to describe it. That’s what you’re stepping on.”

Pelletier has assumed the role of the barking dog, the Shakespearean fool, the vice principal telling the jokers in the back to knock it off and stop acting stupid. He’s also taken the opportunity to define terms like “pono” and “coconut wireless” for outsiders, thus signaling to locals that he’s put in an effort to learn some basic local stuff.

This is not a comment on his leadership of the department. That kind of judgment will come down the road when the work is done, as it will for all involved in the recovery effort. I’m just noting some of the most quotable things Pelletier has said in these press conferences that few members of the press have actually quoted, perhaps because he’s busting on them.  

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier has been not been pulling any punches when he addresses the media at press briefings. (Screenshot/2023)

Three days after the fire, when residents wanted to go back to see their homes and journalists were clamoring to get access to Lahaina to tour the damage, Pelletier said:

“Understand this: Lahaina town is hallowed, sacred ground right now because our iwi are in that ground. We have to get them out. We will get them out as fast as we can, but I need your patience while we do this … But we have to respect the fact that we have loved ones in that earth and we have to do the right thing and get them out the right way.”

Three days later, he answered the question about access again, and addressed an incident described as “civil unrest” when residents were first let back in to the West Maui area.

“The Mayor issued a proclamation last week. Why are you still going in? Unacceptable. We’ve already covered that. If we’re talking about the fight with 200 people, officers were able to, uh, tactfully escort them out. I’ll let you fill in the blanks on that. I got some folks that are very convincing.”

But then, he was asked about access to the burned-out town yet again and he talked about what it takes to search for victims and the teams that have come to Maui to assist in the grim work.

“You know, all these things don’t happen because elves do it. It happens because human beings are doing it … We have people that searched the towers after 9/11. I got reporters here who weren’t alive when that happened.

“I want people to understand the reverence of what we’re doing. The head of the FEMA team conducting this search briefed the team when we went out at the beginning and talked about this: It’s not just ash on your clothing when you take it off. It’s our loved ones. That’s the reverence. That’s why we can’t have you walking down there.”

In an effort to allow restricted access so that people from the Lahaina area could go back to their homes, the Maui Police Department instituted a placard program to prescreen those who had official business in the area. It lasted less than one day. Pelletier shut it down when people misbehaved.

“There was a very clear protocol for West Maui residents, for emergency officials, and other reasons. And so, we didn’t get that that showed up. You know what we got? We got a whole bunch of people who were just curious to go there. And they wrecked it for everybody else,” he said. “At the end of the day, if we think the juice ain’t worth the squeeze, so to speak, then that’s just what we’re going to do.”

Just for transparency: my dad served on the Maui Police Commission way back in the 1980s, and I remember how the old-time police chiefs and their deputies spoke in public. Basically, they didn’t.

Pelletier is a different kind of chief in an extremely different era, when anger is cultural currency, being defensive is a sign of strength, and fast quips are a form of weaponry. In this regard, he’s well-armed. Clearly, though, some just won’t listen.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read this next:

Maui Emergency Chief Defends Decision Not To Activate Warning Sirens

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

Doing what is pono isn't always easy. From what I've seen, I like the guy and the article, Well said.

SheWritesforFood · 1 month ago

I like the guy. Honest and straight forward.

HNLPDX · 1 month ago

I just gotta say I really like the Chief.

da.kine_observer · 1 month ago

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