The Kauai Police Department is short staffed.
Patrol officers frequently work 17-hour shifts and fill in on their days off, only to staff a marginally adequate number of positions. In 2017, the vast majority of the department’s investigators said they felt it was impossible to keep up with their workload. And police administrators are in a constant struggle to hire new recruits fast enough to keep pace with the number of officers leaving the department.
Finding and retaining quality officers is not a problem unique to the KPD. National averages for law enforcement officers per capita have been dropping steadily for the last 15 years, and reports about officer shortages have been the subject of recent news articles and broadcasts in cities across the country.
But the problem is particularly acute on Kauai, and finding a solution — assuming a practical one exists — may be prove to be exceptionally difficult.
The average county police department in 2017 had 2.8 full-time sworn officers for every 1,000 residents, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting statistics. On Kauai, that number is less than two.
According to the most recent figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau, Kauai’s full-time resident population is about 72,000, meaning the KPD would need roughly 200 officers to match national averages. Acting Police Chief Michael Contrades said the department is authorized to employ 162 officers, but has only been able to fill 143 of those positions.
And the KPD’s need for more officers becomes even more apparent when the island’s tourist population is taken into account.
The Hawaii State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimated Kauai’s average daily population was approaching 94,000 in 2016 and projected that number to exceed 99,000 by 2020. That figure may be low, according to Contrades, who said Kauai probably hosts 25-30,000 tourists on any given day.
A conservative estimate would put the population of Kauai at 97,000, meaning the KPD actually has less than 1.5 officers per 1,000 people, nearly half the national average of 2.8 in comparable law enforcement agencies.
These are not simply abstract numbers to KPD officers, the majority of whom reported feeling the strain in a 2017 survey. In a questionnaire filled out by over three-quarters of all KPD employees, 83 percent of respondents said staffing levels have not kept up with Kauai’s needs.
Nearly half of KPD employees reported feeling overwhelmed by their workload to the point that it was impossible to keep up, and only five percent felt they were tasked appropriately.
“I hate to say it, but we’re almost in desperation mode right now,” KPD Assistant Chief Bryson Ponce said in a recent interview.
His sentiments have been echoed by a number of police officers throughout the KPD ranks. Last month, Sergeant Lance Okasaki told a group of civilians who signed up for the KPD’s Citizens Police Academy the department’s shortage of cops was nearing an emergency.
In order to illustrate Okasaki’s point, a patrol officer related a story in which he made a stop and found knives “in every compartment” of the suspects car. “If I was by myself, it could have gone real bad real fast,” the officer said.
Fortunately, another patrol officer was nearby and able to assist in the arrest, but that is not always the case.
According to a 2017 study of the KPD conducted by an independent consulting group, 0.86 backup units respond to every call for police service from the community. In other words, one out of every seven times a KPD patrol officer is called to a potentially dangerous situation, they must respond alone.
Other areas in the department are severely and perpetually short-staffed as well. The 2017 consulting group’s study found the KPD’s investigative services bureau, “has been plagued by a large number of vacancies,” which “resulted in larger caseloads for other staff,” ultimately delaying investigations and forcing detectives to work “cases outside of their experience and training.”
Every single officer in the investigative services bureau who participated in the 2017 survey reported feeling overworked to some degree. Eighty-one percent said they are “always busy and can never catch up,” while the remaining officers said they are busy but can “usually keep up.” No one in investigative services reported having the right balance of work and time available.
Contrades admitted the department has simply not been able to keep up with the demands of Kauai’s growing tourist and resident population.
The KPD has ten cops patrolling the island at any given time, a number that has essentially remained stagnant for at least the past three decades, even though Kauai’s population has increased by roughly 50 percent during that period and tourism has risen dramatically.
Contrades said the goal is to eventually more than double the number of beats. He is in the process of applying for federal grants to pay for one more patrol position, but funding is only part of the problem.
“It’s hard to go to county council — it’s hard to go to the mayor — and say, ‘give us additional positions,’ when we’re having difficulty filling the ones that we currently have,” Contrades said.
Six new officers will graduate their initial training this week, and three new officers were recently hired, Contrades said, but still the department is losing ground.
An additional ten vacancies are expected in the department this year, as officers retire or resign to move on to other opportunities, according to Contrades. He said former officers most commonly cite a lack of affordable housing, the high cost of living and family commitments as reasons for leaving the KPD.
Contrades explained he and other KPD administrators have been working for years to resolve the department’s struggles with recruitment and retention.
One issue, Contrades said, was the department had previously lost a lot of potential recruits because of the amount of time it took to hire them. According to Contrades, a review of the KPD’s hiring process was conducted about seven years ago, and steps were taken to significantly reduce the amount of time required to bring a new recruit on board.
Contrades said the department is developing a “police apprentice program,” which will offer employment to young people thinking about becoming a cop. KPD recruits cannot legally join the force before the age of 20 and-a-half, but Contrades believes the new program — expected to start this summer — will allow prospective recruits to get a jump start on their training and give them a chance to get acclimated to the police lifestyle.
“I want the community to know that we’re doing the best we can with what we have,” Contrades said.