The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Maui Police Chief John Pelletier
The former Las Vegas cop talks about the Lahaina fires, officer wellness, recruitment and retention, reviving cold cases, drones, dogs, DNA and adjusting to island life.
January 14, 2024 · 29 min read
About the Author
The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The former Las Vegas cop talks about the Lahaina fires, officer wellness, recruitment and retention, reviving cold cases, drones, dogs, DNA and adjusting to island life.
Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and several reporters met with Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier at his office in Wailuku. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and with an eye toward future reporting. He specified at the beginning he wouldn’t talk about anything having to do with the Aug. 8 fires that might be part of the state investigation or the police after action report. Pelletier, who has been chief for just over two years now, began by talking about his top priorities.
I think it’s impossible to answer that without recognizing the fact that five months ago we went through the worst tragedy the state’s ever seen, and the incredible work that the men and women of the Maui Police Department, both sworn and unsworn, did goes without saying. And I need to make sure, one, that their wellness, that their safety, not just that they show up at work but that they’re okay when they’re at work. I don’t want a person just to be here for 30 years. I need them to be here for 30 years, and then another 30, 40, 50 years and have a successful retirement. But I also want to make sure that they’re okay.
And so that really is on my mind a lot — to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to build the best wellness component. One of the six pillars of 21st century policing is officer wellness and safety. And that came out because of Barack Obama, born out of the Ferguson, Missouri, (police killing of a Black man) back a decade ago. We never really talk about that but, really, if you think about it, if you have a healthy cop, if you have a motivated cop, you have a very productive cop and that’s a really good thing.
The other thing I want to make sure that we do is that we continue to recruit, attract and develop employees to serve the community. I inherited a 25% staffing shortfall. I’m hiring two people next week, which for the first time in two years puts us below 25%. And the reason I’m saying that is that’s bucking a national trend — that’s actually showing the program we’ve put in place about 18 months ago is working.
What is that program? We specifically put two dedicated full-time officers in the beginning of a recruiting section. I’ve got budget allotments for two non-sworn (officers) to augment that and build a recruiting team.
We’re looking at getting a lease in the mall right by where the National Guard and the military is, so that we make it easier for people to come in and ask the questions. They don’t have to stand outside and come through the police department, because it could be intimidating for somebody that’s thinking about that career. And we want to remove any of those barriers possible.
And so I know you asked me what my priorities are, but really it’s taking care of my people and ultimately taking care of the community by ensuring that we have a robust, complete organization that can meet their needs.
Let’s stay with wellness for just a moment. We met with Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan last year, and wellness was very much at the top of his list, as is recruitment and retention. I seem to recall Chief Logan saying he’ll actually go around and just go up to officers and say, “How are you doing? Are you okay?” Almost like a personal check just to take the temperature, if you will. Do you do that with your force?
I have six districts on three different islands. Nobody else has that unique dynamic. Just because you have six kids doesn’t mean you ignore two of them because they live far away. Obviously, the fire caused a slight wrinkle in that, but since I’ve become the chief, I’ve made quarterly visits to all my districts. I’ve talked to all my cops and I ask them how things are. I ask them, “What’s working, what’s not? What would you change?” We started with that, but now we’re at the point of let’s just talk a little story. “How are things going?” And you start to know their families.
A year ago, I put the cops on three-12s (three days and 12-hour shifts) if you’re on uniform patrol. And if you weren’t on uniform patrol — say you’re a detective or you’re at plans and training or you’re a recruiter — I gave him a four-10 (shift) option so that they could have more time with their families. Why? Because I need them to have the right mindset when they’re here.
If they have more quality time to focus on themselves and their families, it helps them be happier, healthier cops. And I’ve had family members say, “Thank you for giving me my dad back for X amount of days. Thank you for letting my husband be here.” That’s a small thing, but that’s a big thing.
Just the other day, I jumped in a car and did a ride along with one of my guys here in Wailuku, and they’re not used to that. And it was great because now that person gets to know me, I get to know them. And I’ve done that a few times. My executive staff and I, we’ve walked neighborhoods — we call them walkabouts — and we just go talk and knock on people’s doors. And I don’t even say I’m the chief, I just say, “Hi, I’m John Pelletier with MPD, and we’re here to just kind of talk to you about the department. How do you feel it’s going?” The rise and fall of any organization is communication. And as much as we say we’re good at it, we can always improve.
How many officers do you have, and how many do you need?
Four hundred would be fully staffed. After Tuesday, I’ll need 99. But let’s not kid ourselves, right? It’s really 60 officers because then there’s sergeants, lieutenants, there’s the leadership to support that. So it’s not that I’m short 100 patrol cops in the neighborhood. I am short 100 commissioned positions, 60-ish of which are the police officers that are doing the day to day work in the community.
And as you mentioned, this was the biggest crisis in state history in decades. Did you lose folks from your department because of the fires?
I’d like to say no, we didn’t. We lost two police officers that left after the fires. And there’s reasons that they gave, but it was not specifically to the fire. But one could draw that allusion, and we ended up losing three dispatchers, for sure. I have another one that will be leaving. I strongly suspect at least two of them it was fire-related.
I don’t think people understood really what the dispatchers really did. Typical day 1,600-ish calls. That particular day between the text 911s, the different calls, we’re looking at 4,500 calls, so three times the volume. Each dispatcher for the 911 calls took approximately 500 calls on their shift, which is every 90 seconds. Some could be brief, some could be longer. But every single one of those were panicked, were scared, were in fear. And those dispatchers were absolute heroes.
They provide a first responder triage each time they answer a 911 call. The fact that they’re not classified as first responders is criminal, in my opinion, because that’s what they do. They save lives. They deliver babies on the phone, but for some reason they’re labeled as clerks. That’s wrong.
You said you went to three-12s, but what was it before?
So actually here at (the Wailuku station), it would be like five-nines, but it wasn’t five nines. It was actually like six days with mandatory overtime built in. So they were actually working like six-13s, which would mean maybe you got one day off, maybe you got two. But you’re working that long shift and that’s detrimental over time. You can’t sustain that. That was because of Covid and some of the practices that that caused.
And so by working with the union and coming up with some ideas, the leadership team here, we were able to get our hands wrapped around that. It gives people an option, but they also know their schedule. They can plan vacations. They can make sure that they’re there for holidays and birthdays and all the things that that are important.
When you got here, you took over for a long time chief and kind of a good old boy situation. How was it for you to settle in and become part of the community here being from Vegas by way of Buffalo, New York?
So the “ninth Island” doesn’t mean anything as far as assimilating to the culture — let me tell you that much, as much as I would have liked it to have been. You know, change is hard for anyone. That’s a fact. It was a difficult one for the agency to accept an outsider and then to be the outsider as the chief. And I’m the 11th chief in 85 years and the first to ever be from the outside. That’s challenging all the way around.
And then you come into a community, a beautiful community that has a rich, robust, diverse, incredibly sacred culture. I’m just going to be totally honest and tell you this: Maui chooses its own, and that’s not an easy thing. It takes a lot of time. It’s taken two years, and it’s taken the critical incident that we spoke of with the fire but now I bleed MPD blue. This is my agency. These are my folks. Nobody will defend them harder than me.
Talk about that a little bit. How did the fire incident change you or change the department?
It changed the state. It changed America. For anybody to say that it didn’t change, I have first responders who lost their homes. I had people that came to work in clothes they borrowed just to show up to work. They borrowed T-shirts and socks. To come into work, to go pull a tour of duty, to go save lives or go help with the recoveries, or go answer calls for service. That’s not insignificant. That’s incredible.
And we can go back in time five months. There was all these negative, crazy stories of laser beams and time travelers, paid government actors, right? I mean, “Oh, you blocked the roads.” No, my guys saved lives. The men and women of this department save lives. They are heroes. They are the finest examples that this profession has. Period. I’m telling you because that’s a fact. The body camera showed that.
But in the immediacy, we don’t have time to do the after actions. We don’t have because it’s still very dynamic. Remember, we were recovering bodies for several weeks, almost the better part of a month. And then we were going back and making sure we didn’t miss anything and doing secondary and tertiary remain recoveries to make sure.
And so there’s no way you go through that and you don’t come out changed. You don’t stare into the abyss without the abyss staring back.
Now, here’s what I can tell you, though. Although it was our worst moments — and it was, without a doubt — it’s our finest moments too. And we got to see absolutely incredible things, not just by the men and women of this department sworn and unsworn, but by other first responders, by fire, by unsung heroes of the community that nobody knows. This community has an incredible amount of heroes and good Samaritans and just the finest examples of people.
You talked about the hours and changes have been implemented since the fire. Perhaps there were some things that could have been done differently. Going forward, and not even only related to the fire, what kind of changes do you foresee?
Great question. We’re trying to wrap up our preliminary after action report, so I’ve got to save some of that for when we put that out. But let me just kind of tell you this — it kind of talks about wellness just a smidge. The Department of Justice, through the Bureau of Justice Administration, they have the VALOR initiative (VALOR Officer Safety and Wellness Program). I ended up contacting them and we end up getting the VALOR initiative administrative team (to come) out here, and they did a whole assessment of what we’re currently doing, what they can help us with. And then they’re going to develop a program for us to implement. And this is all grant funded.
That’s a big deal because they have stuff like SAFLEO (Suicide Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers prevention program) anti self-harm stuff for law enforcement. They have other programs for families, because it’s not just the first responder, the man and woman doing the job. The family suffered too. I had family members that didn’t know where their husbands were, husbands not knowing where their family members were, kids that were affected. Let’s not forget, five months ago people wanted to villainize people wearing a uniform, and those kids got bullied at school. That’s wrong on so many levels.
For two years we’ve been paying for psychologists that come out here weekly, and we allow our employees to go and meet with the psychologists, sort of make sure that they do a self check-up and different things. We have a coaching program, and they do one-on-one coaching. You actually get a coach and you could pick what topic you wanted. They had well over 100 topics, wellness being one of them.
But it’s hard because we’re on an island for me to bring all the training here or just to drive to where the training is. There’s barriers. So this kind of overcame that. We offered that for 40 people after the fire — performance protocol, unlimited coaching for several months after the fire for folks that wanted that.
One of the other things I wanted to do was cold case squad. There’s a lot of missing persons and there are some very vocal missing-person advocates that were simply trying to get answers for their loved ones. And I knew we had this serious need to make sure that we’re looking at cold cases, whether it’s missing persons homicides, sexual assaults. So we went ahead and we formed the cold case squad. I called it the Charlie Detail after the daughter of one of the missing person advocates but also because Charlie is the first letter — a “C” — in cold case.
Have they worked on anything that’s not fire-related?
Oh, absolutely. I actually got a phone call from a community member that I passed off to the cold case squad, and they were well aware because now they’ve gone back and every week we have like a missing person’s Monday where we release (names) on social media. What we wanted to make sure is that these families — I don’t want to say (they were) ignored, because whether it was manpower or whatever it was — I wanted to make sure that these families knew. That’s their loved one. They want answers. We just have to make sure that we had the resources, the time and the ability. We just made the resources, the time, the ability. I robbed Peter to pay Paul a little bit as far as the staffing, but it’s so important — we just can’t go backwards.
One of the things that seems to keep coming up is that there were people that committed suicide related to the fire and that somehow those numbers were not factored in. Can you comment on that?
Absolute mis-, dis- and malinformation. I get every death notification there is and we did not have an influx of suicides after this event at all. We did not have an issue of self-harm in this community. Period.
What did the media do right — and what did the media get wrong covering the Lahaina fires?
Let me let me just say this: I’m very cognizant of the fact that when I raised my right hand and I swore my oath to the Constitution of the United States in the state of Hawaii, I understand free speech and freedom of the press are things that are protected as well. And we have an obligation in policing to ensure that we protect free speech. The freedom of the press is critical. The media is our partner because we need messaging to get out.
There (has been) this adversarial relationship over the last 25 years, maybe longer. We can go back to the Watts riots, maybe Rodney King, maybe Ferguson, maybe George Floyd. You can go back to these moments in time. But at the end of the day, we have an obligation together to make sure that the community we live in is safe — by me — and informed by the media. And there really is a much more symbiotic relationship with each other than I think we realize. And what I mean by that is we can help you inform the public, and you can help us inform the public as needed, whether there’s people we need to help catch, safety issues, notifications. There’s a lot we can do together.
So let me answer specifically as far as the fire is concerned. We saw here like I saw in Nevada (the 2017 Mandalay Bay hotel mass shooting) — an influx of outside media that came not just nationally but internationally. And we all knew that they’re all going to leave at some point. And although some of them are absolutely the best in the business, incredible journalists that really are the top of the game, tip of the spear — we also know that there are sometimes people that are a little self-serving.
And I believe that just like there’s certain expectations for law enforcement and public officials, there’s certain expectations for journalists and journalistic integrity. And journalists are not supposed to be the news — they’re supposed to report the news. Journalists aren’t supposed to go out of their way to sensationalize something or mislead something. And so there’s this, this delicate balance there, right?
But I think that the media was able to get certain messaging out right away. The media was actually able to help quell some stuff right away. I thought that the reporting, for instance, on the body cameras was fantastic because it showed very clearly what the men and women of this agency did, and they were heroes.
We grew up reading a paper, and you got the paper delivered and you looked at the paper and you kind of enjoyed that, maybe a cup of coffee. But now it’s been out online for a minute, and I’m sure you’re like me — you look at multiple media things. I think we’ve seen an evolution.
What about your own mental health, I guess maybe throughout your career but maybe also in the last five months or so, what are you doing to just make sure you’re staying in top shape?
That’s a fair question. Obviously, I get asked that. And they wrap in 1 October in Las Vegas and all the various things that I’ve been in. Right. That’s, you know, that’s a fair question.
That was the mass shooting from the hotel?
Yeah. Mandalay Bay. I actually went to the FBI National Academy in 2019, and I took a graduate level wellness class while I was there. And I initially took the class thinking, “I’m going to use this for my people.” And I ended up saying, “You know, I’m taking this for me.”
So I wake up, I reset by getting a workout in six or seven days a week. I’m pretty religious about that. I eat clean.
I have the most loving, understanding wife in the world. I couldn’t do this without Cristy, and if my wife did not support me, I couldn’t do this job. My wife had a huge hand in that, and I owe her a debt of gratitude. But because she’s my partner, I’m able to talk to her and go through these things together.
I think the fact that I’ve set up such a good leadership team. It took me a good year to get the team in place. And the reason I say this is because you have to bounce things off of someone.
I was just curious the day President Biden came to visit. What were you thinking?
I was told, and we would find this out, that the only sitting president to ever visit Maui was Joe Biden on that day. No other sitting president has ever bothered to come to Maui County. Not even Barack Obama.
(The criminal investigations unit) became the best in the state at dignitary protection because, when you think about it, we had the president coming in. We had the speaker of the House at the time coming in. We had all these dignitaries, all these members of the administration, and they were coordinating and moving all those pieces and all these parts. And that’s not an easy thing to do. And especially when we’re talking about the president of the United States, because God forbid. …
And so you want to make sure that you’ve got all these moving parts and that you have all your I’s dotted and T’s crossed, so to speak. I’m not just the chief of police for 400-plus members of this agency. I’m the chief of police for all of Maui County ohana and 168,000 as well as the visitors that come here. I had an opportunity to make sure that I represented the need for some of what the federal government could provide. I thought it was a positive because we got a commitment to make sure that we would be as whole as possible and that the powers that be would ensure that if we had an ask, we would be met in what we requested. And I think that that’s a really good thing.
It must have been a pretty horrific experience overseeing the police response in Nevada to that mass shooting. Has that affected your views on guns at all?
It’s a fair question. It’s an absolute fair question. And I know that then President Trump banned bump stocks. I don’t think that anybody needs to have a weapon that can do something like a Glock trigger can. That’s an aftermarket modification to make something cause more harm. A handgun is a defensive weapon. A long gun is an offensive weapon. And so when you start putting certain things that are banned or illegal on certain items, there’s a reason why they’re illegal and they’re banned.
But again, I have to be all things to all people. I have to represent both sides of this dynamic. And I try to make sure that I have that balance, because let’s also recognize that, you know, Hawaii historically has not had these things. And so there are people that have fear over this. I do know you’re asking for more, but I’m going to respectfully say that some of my personal opinions I do have to keep just personal. But the answer is yes.
I just wanted to ask you about the interaction between your officers and the greater Lahaina community post fire. Many people are living in these hotels long term. Are you seeing that the community has new or different needs that you’re needing to meet? What is that like, just everyday policing of a community that’s now so very broken.
Scared. Broken. And remember that some of my cops were in the Lahaina incident and are from Lahaina, and they’re ripped and scarred and hurt too. Some of them are staying in some of these places we’re talking about. And so this department is of the community, and this community is of the department. And we’re one. And if there’s anything that happened on the 9th of August, is this department in this community absolutely became solidified as one, and that we see each other very clearly. And our ability to interact with them has been phenomenal. And I have people from this department that are engaged with some of the local community leaders on a regular basis to make sure that their needs are met.
Also, there’s not just those communities (the displaced fire survivors), there’s other communities that we’re plugged into as well. And so if this department sees a need, will we definitely act on that need.
You came here from a big police department to this little police department. What sort of things do you think you could use here? Like, when you think about best police practices, best policies and stuff. What are you trying to implement here that the community would like to know about?
So obviously the cold case — I had mentioned that before. Well, this year we’re going to get K-9 dogs. We used them in the recoveries, so we all know how valuable they are. But it’s a de-escalation tool — a K-9 is a de-escalation too. It’s less lethal and ultimately we want people to comply.
And so one of the things we are going to do is we’re going to make sure that we build a K-9 program here. And that’s good for so many reasons. It helps with missing persons. It helps with recruiting. It helps with apprehensions. It helps with having a less lethal option. It’s great with community engagement. It’s great for wellness. And it also helps the officers because that gives them something that they may want to aspire to, to be a handler.
I just bought some tactical drones that we can use on tactical operations. They actually break glass and we can send the drones in to help with negotiations as well as to view where offenders may be.
But we’re also looking at other drones to get, such as the ones that map the Lahaina area, because I eventually want to get a drone vehicle in every district. Because let’s just say you have a couple missing kids at Black Rock. If you got a drone car, how much can that drone search versus people walking? You’re going to be able to see so much more.
So I want to make sure we utilize technology effectively and not be afraid to do that. The one problem is if you don’t try to move forward.
We are going to build a much more robust recruiting strategy. We’re looking at getting a (recruiting office) lease, like I said, in the mall. Maybe if there’s an idea out there that can improve the job, it can improve the transparency that can help us build, then we’re going to do it.
And we’re right now in the process of building a new CAD or a computer-assisted dispatch records management system, because the citizens of this community deserve the best product available, the officers of this agency deserve the best product available, and we’re going to build that. And then we’re going to look to build a real time crime or a real time operations center that we can see events happening in real time.
You can still absolutely use it, whether it’s the triangle out in Kihei, out by the airport, over by the mall, Wailuku Town, or eventually you could use it out in Kaanapali and, eventually, when Lahaina becomes what it will become in the future. You can have cameras and there’s multiple jurisdictions that do, but they simply can observe things in real time. There’s software and AI that if there’s a fire on a hill, that is an anomaly — these things are incredible. And so why not seize that?
I just want to make sure that I run the agency to be the best evolved progressive law enforcement agency in America, period. We don’t have to settle for mediocrity. Let’s be the best.
Will the police department get grant money or anything from these fires? Is some of this federal money coming your way? And then what would you do with that?
I do anticipate some federal reimbursement as needed. Usually that’s going to be for the overtime and some different things or some projects that we’re desirous of having. One of the things that we’re asking for, and I will get it one way or another, is for the rapid DNA machine that we used. The company is ANDE. They invented the technology. It’s there. Why would we not get this? Every municipality should have this machine.
If you guys remember, just before the fire, I had a homicide where an individual was wrapped in plastic Upcountry. We didn’t know who that person was for a little bit. If I had that machine, then I might be able to have that if I have a missing person. The technology’s already proven itself. But if I don’t get it through this mechanism, there’s other mechanisms that will go ahead and procure it.
What’s it like to be a cop in 2024? You guys have come through everything that everyone is really scrutinizing. Is it still kind of a noble profession?
It’s the most noble profession there is. There’s no other job that you would go risk your life for somebody you’ve never met. When that 911 call comes and you go get dispatch and you have to go do something, you don’t know who that person is. You may know a lot of people, but you don’t know if it’s a visitor, and you don’t know how dynamic that call is. You don’t know if it’s a fire, you don’t know if it’s the violent situation. But you make a difference. You save lives. You impact people.
I love being a cop. I love this agency. There’s nothing I’d rather do. I’m blessed that I’ve been able and privileged to be able to do this job for as long as I’ve been able to do, and to lead the men and women of this agency. And so there are ups and downs in this profession like others.
And it’s the only job also that if one other person anywhere in this country screws up, everybody pays a price. Everybody. And that is so hard, because you try to do everything right. You have to be — infinity and “O” is your record, right? Everything you do has to be right because you do the one blemish or the one thing and the ripple can be devastating. And we saw that years ago.
Although we’ve hopefully stopped the defunding and the negative policing and some of these things that we’ve seen, every city that’s tried it has recognized they made a mistake. But being an officer, being in this profession, this is our community, it is my community. It took me 50 years to get home, but I’m home.
We do this job because we’re called to do this job. It’s a passion. It’s not just some 9 to 5. This isn’t like you just punch a clock. It’s an absolute calling. Look, is it an adrenaline rush at times and absolutely intoxicating? Yes. Is it also crazy in the amount of, you know, B.S. that you have to deal with? Yes.
Would I have it any other way? No. Because it’s just the dynamic of what it is. You get to see and meet and do things that nobody else ever gets to see, whether it’s flying drones here, working a K-9 dog, being on the SWAT team or the SRT (special response teams), working in traffic, whether it’s helping with search and rescue, whether it’s helping with the domestic violence, whether it’s putting on a homicide case, whether it’s doing a cold case investigation.
Think about it this way: You don’t know what impact you could have on somebody. What if you do save someone’s life? Whoa. And then what does that mean? You know what? If that person’s kid could be the president of United States and think of all the things she could do as the president, right? What other job, what other career does that? Nothing I’ve ever thought of. And so when the bad happens, we don’t run from the bad, we run to the bad, and somebody has to do it.
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