Maui Police Department said a small crew of officers did its best to save lives in Lahaina and elsewhere on Maui in August.

The Maui Police Department released body camera footage on Monday from the Aug. 8 wildfires showing how officers directed traffic, evacuated neighborhoods and even tried to put out fires with garden hoses. 

At a press conference, MPD presented 16 minutes of edited video clips captured in and around Kula, Kihei and Lahaina. Body cameras, which officers are instructed to manually activate when arriving on a scene, captured their efforts to warn residents of danger and direct them to safety.

“Fire started up again. This house is going to catch on fire pretty soon,” an officer told a resident as he went door to door to evacuate a neighborhood. “I would get out now. Grab everybody.” 

A Maui Police officer tries to put out a fire with a garden hose on Aug. 8, 2023. (Maui Police Body Camera/2023)
A Maui Police officer tries to put out a fire with a garden hose on Aug. 8, 2023. (Maui Police Body Camera/2023)

Other clips captured officers directing traffic out of Lahaina, helping community members to remove locked gates and fallen trees so drivers could escape, and using their cars’ PA systems to urge people to leave.

Two officers helped an elderly man down his stairs as powerful winds blew and flames flickered nearby. A large group, holed up in a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf surrounded by smoke, was evacuated after officers stuffed them into the back of their cruisers and drove them to safety, officials said.

One video clip captured a man who suffered burns who, according to police, was personally driven to the hospital by an officer.

Ultimately, 99 people were killed in the Lahaina fire and hundreds of structures were destroyed. Some community members have questioned the performance of the police that day, alleging that officers blocked roads to safety and turned drivers back toward the fire.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said roads may have been blocked by unsafe road conditions, including downed power lines and the fire itself, but said his officers did everything they could to shepherd people to safety. Only 13 officers were working in the West Maui district at the height of the fire, police said.

Others were responding to emergencies elsewhere on the island – both fires and other calls – or were resting in order to take up the following shifts.

“There have been multiple narratives about what took place on the day of those fires,” Pelletier said. “This body-worn camera footage makes it very clear and convincing that the Maui Police Department, the men and women of MPD, went above and beyond, and their actions reflect the finest tradition of this noble profession. I, and this staff, could not be more proud of MPD. God bless them.”

Of the 13 Maui police personnel who lived in Lahaina, 11 “lost everything,” including family members and homes, Sgt. Chase Bell said at the press conference. One officer, who lived in Kula, lost his cottage in the fire.

“To say that the police department did not do their due diligence to save lives is false,” Bell said.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said his department will be reviewing its own performance in an after-action report which is estimated to be released within two years of the fires. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

Officials said 20 hours of footage would be released later in the day in response to public records requests but Civil Beat did not receive it. The chief said the department released the 16-minute edit to the public in advance to “give some context to some of the videos that they would see,” Pelletier said.

Some officers did not activate their cameras, either because they came directly from being off-duty or for other reasons, officials said. Some of the video lacks audio. Maui Police officers have the capability to mute their cameras when they are “conferring” with each other, Bell said. Sometimes, the officers never turn the sound back on.

All the footage will be part of an after-action review, conducted by MPD, that will examine the department’s actions during the fires and explore areas for improvement. The review began eight weeks ago, right after the fires.

MPD is best positioned to do the report, rather than an outside entity, because staff are already familiar with their own policies and standard operating procedures, according to Pelletier.

For example, Pelletier said the department is already considering changing its body-worn camera policy to require officers to activate them upon dispatch rather than arrival at the scene. He is also interested in getting new equipment, such as the rescue tools known as the “jaws of life” or SWAT-style BearCat vehicles that could have more quickly broken down roadway obstacles.

The report will be done in phases – a preliminary review should be complete within six months and another should done within 18 months to two years after the incident, Pelletier said.

“I need to make sure that if there’s an area that we can address to make it better, we’re going to make it better,” Pelletier said after the press conference. “We’re just going to do the best we can.”

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

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