(BIVN) – The need for more police in Puna and Kaʻū was detailed in emotional testimony on Tuesday during a Hawaiʻi County Council Public Safety Committee meeting in Hilo.
Councilmember Matt Kanealiʻi-Kleinfelder introduced a resolution requesting an increase in the ratio of police officers per resident in the Puna district “to reduce risk and response times for police officers attempting to help those in need of assistance.”
Mayor Harry Kim has already indicated his support for the idea, by adding several new positions for police in the Puna and Kaʻū districts in his proposed FY 2019-20 budget.
Still, Tuesday’s Council discussion was an opportunity to hear from the public. Among the speakers was Juergen Canda, a recently retired lieutenant in the Hawaiʻi Police Department, who stated that for the past two decades, Puna has essentially been at half the police to population ratio that’s required.
It is “no mystery why this sector has the highest burglary rate for three decades,” Canda said, “and it’s a highly targeted area for criminals who come from island wide to victimize the residents. The manning levels of Puna make it impossible to accomplish the universal police mission of reducing crime and reducing the fear of crime.”
“The manning levels of Puna have been maintained to just meet the reactive demand, driving the officers to respond from call to call the entire shift, often without a meal,” Canda continued. “You never see officers simply patrolling in Puna because they can’t.”
Without the ability to utilize modern policing methodologies, let alone engage in conventional proactive practices, Canda said, “more and more guns are now on the street in Puna. In the first few months of 2018 over hundred guns were stolen during burglaries. Gun-related calls have escalated. More and more officers are encountering armed individuals and situations where shots have been fired. [Special Response Team] call-outs are commonplace.”
Canda said this escalation of gun-related violence eventually culminated in the death of officer Bronson Kaliloa in 2018.
It has all taken a toll on the police force, Canda said. “In recent years, there has been a mass exodus of officers, the most experienced officers from the Puna district, leaving to drive as far as Kona and Kohala just out of sheer self-preservation. Those that remain or replace them start each shift with a single thought: survive the shift.”
“I’ve seen my officers suffer all sorts of physical disorders from stress but the disorders I worry about the most are those that are unseen,” Canda said, “because there’s a national crisis occurring in the police ranks, and we have experienced that crisis here on the Big Island. Believe it or not, but for the past three years we’ve actually lost more officers to suicide than we have from line of duty deaths.”
“We have to end the senseless cycle of victimization, crime, and despair and helplessness felt by both the public and the officers,” Canda testified. “No other measure will have a greater impact on quality of life enhanced safety and motivating reinvigorate the police force. It would be felt island-wide because what is happening in Puna, and the criminal activity there, touches each and every district on this island, as crime and guns are being exported to all of your districts.”
Douglas Phillips, a State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers union representative for Kaʻū, said the needs are growing in his district as well.
“We have geographically the largest district on the island,” Phillips said. “Our officers run from the volcano National Park all the way to the Macnut Orchard, and many times there are only two officers on duty at a time to handle the calls for service.”
“The way our system is set up, as far as processing prisoners,” Phillips added, “if we have a violent offender and those two officers involved are processing that arrest, if a priority call comes in, it will be hours before they’re able to deal with that call.”
The councilmembers voted to approve the measure, after a round of discussion.
Not all testimony was in support of an increased police presence in Puna. A group of residents who feel they have been mistreated by law enforcement spoke out. We will have their story in part two of our coverage.