In his first year on the job, the chief has worked to improve transparency, staffing shortages and other issues.

When his officers fatally shot a 30-year-old suspect on the Big Island in September, Chief Ben Moszkowicz said he didn’t hesitate to make body camera footage of the shooting publicly available.

Two days after the Sept. 23 shooting in Puna, Moszkowicz released video that showed the officers’ actions from the minutes preceding the shooting to the immediate aftermath.

Moszkowicz, 47, who is originally from Toledo, Ohio, and was sworn in as chief in January after serving 22 years with the Honolulu Police Department, says he’s committed to communicating with the public about incidents involving his officers.

This year has put him to the test. There have been three officer-involved shootings so far — four counting one in which an officer shot a dog. 

Hawaii Police Department Chief Ben Moszkowicz talks with Civil Beat Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Hilo. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Big Island Chief Ben Moszkowicz said in his first year as chief he’s tackled a variety of issues, including revising the department’s body camera policy, implementing a recruitment process and addressing community concerns about data sharing. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In every instance, he said, he’s tried to be transparent in the aftermath, though varying factors like a lack of body camera footage presented challenges. He said he’s looking at policy changes, including drafting a new rule requiring officers to activate their body cameras upon dispatch instead of just when they arrive on the scene.

Another priority, he says, is alleviating a staffing storage — something community members say contributes to the prevalence of crime, especially in underserved areas like Puna.

While residents say they appreciate the quickness with which the department shares information after an incident, they want to see better lines of communication between police and community members about issues like the status of investigations, crime statistics and police response times.

“Overall, I think it’s just the consistency and the communication with the community members that are really important,” said Shannon Matson, whose father was mauled to death by dogs at Ocean View Estates in Ka‘u in August. “I think transparency is super key.”

Body Camera Policy

The Hawaii Police Department has had mixed results with body cameras since it started using them in 2020. Unlike officers in Honolulu who must activate their bodycams upon dispatch, Big Island police don’t have to do so until they arrive on the scene, for example.

Moszkowicz, who was a finalist to be Honolulu police chief before he was chosen to lead the Big Island force, said the public has come to expect to see the footage of officer-involved shootings after they occur so he tries to release videos within 48 to 72 hours, but footage isn’t always available.

The footage released of the Puna shooting came after Moszkowicz said the suspect ran into a heavily wooded area and began “firing indiscriminately” at the officers who were responding to a domestic dispute complaint.

“I think it’s a compelling narrative because people can relate to it and because it tells a story,” he said during a recent interview in Hilo. “They continually are doing the right thing. They’re giving the suspect verbal commands, ‘Put the gun down. Stop,’ It’s just a matter of showing here’s what we have, this is why the officers did what they did.”

However, footage from the scene of a Feb. 3 officer-involved shooting in Hilo that wounded a robbery suspect, didn’t show the moment the suspect was shot. Plainclothes detectives involved in the pursuit weren’t required to wear body cameras, and other officers who responded didn’t turn their cameras on right away, Moszkowicz said.

“There are officers who are there who have bodycams, but in the rush of the moment … the thought process doesn’t occur to them to press the button,” he said. “And that’s one of the things we’re trying to remediate with the new policy. Look, when you’re headed to the scene, just hit the button and start recording.” 

The new policy would require officers to activate their recording devices before arriving at the scene of any call for service, prior to any contact with a subject and before initiating any traffic stop.

Hawaii Police Department building is photographed Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Hilo. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Chief Ben Moszkowicz said officers who arrive at stressful crime scenes sometimes don’t think to turn on their body cameras. His new policy would require officers to activate their cameras upon dispatch, rather than upon arrival. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

He said he’d also like funding for the department to acquire more body cameras that can be issued to plainclothes detectives and other specialized personnel. Currently, the devices are only issued to patrol officers and traffic cops because they have the most interaction with the public.  

“Even if it’s just a pool of bodycams that the detectives grab and throw on their plainclothes folks as they go out of the station,” he said. “I think more is better in that regard.” 

Mixed Reviews

Hawaii County Council Member Matt Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder, who represents Puna, a district with many remote areas that struggle with crime and slow police response times, said he wants the department to make more crime statistics available.

He said he plans to draft a council resolution that requests a monthly summary of crime data from the department in the form of a geographic information systems map to show what types of crimes are happening where.

“We now suddenly have this flood of people who are interested.”

Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz

The Honolulu Police Department maps crimes on Oahu and recently rolled out a data dashboard with user-friendly crime statistics. 

Moszkowicz said he plans to improve the department’s method of sharing crime statistics.

For some community members, issues with the department’s communication isn’t only about crime statistics or officer-involved shootings — it’s personal. 

Shannon Matson, whose father was killed in a dog attack in Ka‘u in August, said she learned of some details about her father’s case through the media rather than directly from police. (Courtesy: Shannon Matson)

Shannon Matson said she wished Big Island police would have been more communicative with her family throughout the investigation into the dog attack that killed her father.

“We heard through the media that the dogs were put down,” said Matson, who works for Hawaii County but was speaking as an individual and not in her official capacity. “We never received confirmation of that from police. That left a lot of questions for myself and my family members.” 

Matson, who lives in Upper Puna, said she appreciates the department’s commitment to using body cameras and releasing footage, but she wishes officers would also take time to make sure they’re connecting regularly with crime victims.

“It would be great to know that we’re being followed up with so we don’t have to be the ones to make those hard phone calls over and over again,” she said.   

Another area residents would like to see the police improve is early intervention with at-risk people before crimes occur. 

People who need mental health treatment or those who are homeless often don’t come into contact with government systems until they commit a crime, said Kanani Daley, a Native Hawaiian interior designer and art curator based in Hilo. And by that point, the types of services that could really help them are hard to come by, she said.

“They are being arrested, then incarcerated, and then having to endure the overcrowded and inhumane facilities in prison as they wait indefinitely for psychiatric examination to be treated with proper care,” she said.

Officer Tyler Jelsma, a community policing officer in South Hilo, said if police are called to a complaint involving a homeless person, they can refer them to a shelter if space is available. Police work closely with homelessness outreach teams, like those run by nonprofit Hope Services Hawaii, he said.

Hawaii Police Department Officer Tyler Jelsma gets a description of a trespasser outside of a retail store Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Hilo. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Community policing Officer Tyler Jelsma gets a description of a trespasser outside of a retail store in Hilo. Jelsma says police work with homelessness outreach teams to help people get care. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Overcoming Staffing Shortages

One problem that undercuts efforts to improve community outreach and response times is a staffing crisis that has left the department with 72 vacancies out of 484 sworn positions — a vacancy rate of almost 15%.

“I’m worried about it all the time,” Moszcowicz said of the shortage. “I’m like all the other police leaders in this department. We’re invested in providing the public with the highest quality service we can and the fastest response times we can with the best deliverables possible.”

Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder said Puna needs more officers, with just eight officers patrolling the 500-square-mile area near the Kilauea volcano.

Because the district has so many unpaved roads, cops are allowed to drive subsidized pickup trucks that can navigate the difficult terrain, Moszkowicz said. By contrast, Chinatown in Honolulu, an area of less than a square mile, piloted a task force this summer consisting of seven foot-patrol officers.

A “community perspectives on policing survey” published by the University of Hawaii Hilo in May found that nearly a third of respondents thought the department should increase staffing.

Moszkowicz said he has initiated a new, speedier recruitment process that he believes will help the department get fully staffed in around 18 months.

When he started as chief, he said anyone interested in becoming an officer could only apply twice a year. Academy classes, which also took place twice a year, would often start months after a person applied, and many prospective recruits would move on to other opportunities in the meantime.

Now, anyone can apply year-round through the county’s website, and as soon as between 10 and 20 candidates have passed an initial exam, a six-month long academy begins, he said.

Instead of graduating just two recruitment classes per year, a fresh class will finish the academy every few months, Moszkowicz said.

“We now suddenly have this flood of people who are interested, we’re getting through their background checks quicker and through their personal history questionnaires and through their polygraphs quicker because we’re handling them in smaller chunks,” he said.

Since the new process started in May, the department is on track to hire 23 new recruits, Moszkowicz said, adding he expects the department to be fully staffed and expanding by 2025.

“We’re more than doubling what we would have had this calendar year by implementing this process,” he said.

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