KPD staffing is pennywise, pound foolish

Recently, I participated in the Kauai Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy, which the department offers as frequently as it can to acquaint residents with how KPD works.

Class sessions are spread over 13 weeks — mostly in-classroom, but with opportunities to fire guns at the shooting range, practice crime scene analysis, drive a police car and accompany a uniformed officer on patrol.

I signed up because I spent many years as a reporter on the Mainland and in public relations for the nation’s largest court system.

I was accustomed to law enforcement on a huge scale. It turns out there exist as many differences as similarities and that policing is about the same in any isolated community, with one exception. Typically, if an officer in the average small town department needs help, surrounding counties and cities can immediately send extra officers.

Here, though, as everywhere in Hawaii, there is no backup. If KPD officers can’t address some critical situation themselves, it won’t be addressed. What cops on the Mainland call “mutual aid” does not exist for Kauai.

Kauai has the lowest ratio of police officers per 1,000 residents in Hawaii, with KPD divided into 11 territories called beats. They’re pie slice-shaped wedges running from Polihale to Haena. Each is staffed by one officer at a time.

There is a supervisor — usually a sergeant — overseeing two or three of the beats. During the day, there are traffic enforcement officers on patrol who can be diverted if necessary and detectives working on their own cases. At night, though, Kauai is protected by just 11 cops and a couple of sergeants.

I made the acquaintance of Lt. Rod Green. We have in common that he was once a deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an agency I covered as a reporter and worked with daily as the public relations director for the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Green filled me in on just how thinly KPD is spread. So much so that many nights, the supervisors have to hit the streets themselves. So thin that officers from the following shift must be called in early, on overtime.

Green described how officers “slide” from one beat to another to fill gaps. And if a traffic crash in Waimea requires two or more officers to respond and then an armed robbery or assault also occurs in Kalaheo, much of the south and west parts of the island go largely unpoliced.

I spoke with KPD Chief Darryl Perry and Deputy Chief Michael Contrades about how Kauai has is uniquely challenged. Perry and Contrades talk about this every year at budget time, but are usually rebuffed by a County Council that views any substantial increase in the police budget as impossible. This year, KPD’s overtime was even cut by $400,000.

County Council Chair Mel Rapozo is, himself, an ex-KPD officer. Even Rapozo, however, has dismissed chances for any expansion.

The department only has 11 beats thanks to a federal grant that pays for one of them — money that could easily disappear as the Trump administration axes item after item. The federal money came through the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program of the U.S. Department of Justice. A Justice Department spokesperson said Friday that “it remains to be seen” if COPS will survive.

So the county is only paying for 10 beats. That is the same number it had in 1994, when the island had a population of just under 51,000. Today, about 69,000 people live here and there are between 20,000 and 22,000 visitors on island every day — far more than in 1990.

Statewide, Kauai lags other counties in the ratio of police officers per 1,000 residents. We have 2.37; Maui has 2.5 and Hawaii Island has 2.9. Those may not sound very different, but they are.

Naturally, we have the fewest cops — 164, versus 386 for Maui and 450 for Hawaii Island. Honolulu County has 1,938 officers, but defies comparison to Neighbor Islands.

Since 1990, KPD has added just 15 officers, while Maui has grown by 95 and Hawaii Island by 104. All have lots of tourists, but those numbers aren’t computed in the officer-resident ratios. If they were, all three departments would be even more thinly staffed, with Kauai further at the bottom of the list.

As a result, KPD pays a lot in overtime. This year, the department’s budget is $33.5 million and it is set to spend nearly $1.7 million on overtime, even with the reduction imposed by the County Council. Overtime for filling in for sick or vacationing officers or otherwise keeping existing beats staffed accounted for 18,212 hours in 2016. Cost: $1 million.

Perry and Contrades figure they need another 44 officers. When you include all the costs of one cop — recruiting, patrol cars, communications gear, training, uniforms, equipment, salary, benefits and everything else — an officer costs about $230,000 a year, according to the county. The gross cost of just over $1 million to add them does not compare directly to the current overtime budget, but it’s clear that it would be cheaper to expand the department than to keep paying so much overtime.

So this all ends up pennywise and pound foolish. Realistically, it’s questionable whether the county will see the KPD budget differently next year, and it’s true that the budget of about $201 million is not flush.

On the County Council are at least two people who loom as candidates to replace Mayor Bernard Carvalho — Rapozo and Councilmember Derek Kawakami. Paying attention to KPD’s need to expand might be good politics.

For Mayor Carvalho, a push for KPD expansion, coming near the end of his final term, could help define his legacy long into the future. He has been sensitive to KPD personnel needs, helping to streamline the hiring process for officers, supporting the COPS grant, supporting reclassification of some civilian positions to sworn officers and hiring a consultant to conduct a staffing study. It’s too soon to tell if that will translate into a KPD expansion plan in next year’s budget.

In a statement released Friday, Carvalho said, “We acknowledge that, as our population grows, so will the demand for public safety (services). KPD has been one of the more innovative departments in terms of making operational adjustments to satisfy growing needs with existing resources.”

Speaking of next year, it will be here any minute. Is it time for Kauai community safety to be enhanced by having an adequately staffed police department? We need to find out.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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