LIHUE — Solving Kauai’s drug problem has never been easy.
Just ask any of the 94 officers who spend every day patrolling the island.
For 14 years, Kauai Police Department Lt. Mark Ozaki has dedicated countless hours of his time to helping Kauai’s youth stay off the streets by providing them a place to go. He does that through the Kauai Police Activities League, KPD’s answer to stopping crime early and promoting a drug-free Kauai.
KPAL, a non-profit organization coordinated by police, has been so successful and popular, Ozaki said, that KPD has dedicated a full-time officer to it.
Meet KPAL Officer Mitchell Collier.
“Mark left some really big shoes to fill,” Collier said of Ozaki, who has represented KPAL almost since its initiation in 2001.
A former U.S. Navy officer, Collier joined KPD about two years ago. In December, he became the new face of KPAL.
With a background in IT, Collier said he wants to breathe fresh, new life into KPAL by “thinking like the children.”
He hopes to reach a wider audience through social media, and expand KPAL’s reach to youth.
“Experience has shown us that the best way to reduce crime and drugs in our community is to prevent it from occurring in the first place,” said KPD Police Chief Darryl Perry. “As law enforcement, we see the value of dedicating resources to drug and crime prevention.”
In 2015, KPD reported 518 drug-related arrests, which included the sale, manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine and marijuana.
Collier said KPAL, which reaches about 1,200 kids, is about enhancing police and community involvement, while “sneaking in some drug awareness.”
“We want to teach them how drugs are harmful,” Collier said.
Collier is studying the island’s social media trends, finding that high school kids aren’t as active on Facebook as their parents or older siblings.
“I’m trying to think as the children and how they talk to each other,” he said.
Collier, a self-proclaimed millennial, has revamped the KPAL website, created a KPAL Instagram and wants to focus on teens.
“I’m trying to bring more programs,” Collier said. “We’re trying to come up with new ideas. With KPAL, we’re trying to reach out to all the kids.”
He will be responsible for coordinating KPAL programs such as wrestling, boxing, flag football, basketball and other athletic programs.
He’ll also be reaching out to schools and organizations to strengthen community relations and create new partnerships, he said.
One of KPAL’s more successful programs is youth boxing, which began in 2008, Ozaki said.
More than 20 kids show up for the elementary school age boxing class, ready to strap on their gloves and punch a police officer — all in good fun, Ozaki said.
As the primary coach, Ozaki talks to the keiki. He gets them thinking about careers and encourages them to stay off drugs.
Ozaki said it’s about encouraging confidence, building character and making kids understand that police officers, especially patrol officers, are positive role models and good guys, too.
Both the KPAL veteran and rookie said they wanted to “help kids reach their full potential.”
“And, of course, showing them the different perspective of police officers,” Ozaki said. “A couple of kids mentioned that they may be police officers. We’re trying to get them to stay out of trouble.”
KPAL programs are offered throughout the week, after school and on weekends, Collier said.
“We don’t try to duplicate service,” Ozaki said. “We try to fill the gap.”
Collier reached out to high school students, and found an interest in CrossFit and video games. A lot of kids told him they saw KPAL as something for younger children.
“I am going to try to keep what we have alive and running … and expand it as well.”
Collier hopes to start a KPAL Gaming League for kids who are into Minecraft or Street Fighter.
On April 8, there will be a KPAL boxing showcase at Kukui Grove. Collier and Ozaki plan to bring a 20-by-20 ring to the exhibition hall and have kids box each other.
“At the end of the event, it’s not about who wins or loses,” Collier said. “Both of the kids will have their hands in the air and show that they were here. It’ll show respect. It’ll show character and that there’s teamwork. We’re there for the positive factor. We want to speak to the community by being at the mall and help with commerce. We’re all about each other.”
Carlton Ito, a supporter of KPAL, said his grandson, Tai, has been in the boxing program for about a year and loves it.
“I give Mark a lot of credit,” Ito said. “(Tai) is a lot more coordinated than he was. His strength has increased. His confidence has increased. Even his appetite has increased. Hopefully, (KPAL) can get some funding because this place is too small.”
Many of KPAL’s activities take place at the Lihue Youth Center near Vidinha Stadium, but the organization has been trying for several years to raise funds for more classes and services.
A renovation project, which is currently in the permitting process, should begin as early as the end of this year, and Collier has started a KPAL gofundme to get new, state-of-the-art equipment for the kids.
Once renovated, the center would serve as home base for KPAL activities as well as some KPD training, Collier said.
Even though Collier is the official face of KPAL, that doesn’t mean Ozaki won’t be around. He’ll continue to stay involved as a KPAL board member and coach.
“One of the positive things is that the chief assigned Mitch right under me,” Ozaki said.
“It’s really good working together. His desk is right across from mine. We’re working hand in hand. I feel a sense of electricity with him bringing in some new flavor. Big things are about to happen. I’m really stoked about it. I may be the name of KPAL, but we got the right guy here.”