Puna councilman wants more cops for district

  • New council member Matt Kaneali'i-Kleinfelder receives lei Monday after the County of Hawaii County Council Inaugural Ceremony at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
  • Hawaii Island police investigate an officer-involved shooting in 2016. (Tim Wright / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER, file)

HILO — A resolution urging the county administration to increase funding to add more police officers in Puna is expected to appear on the Hawaii County Council’s Public Safety Committee agenda on March 12 in Hilo.

Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, a freshman who represents District 5 in Puna, said a stepped-up police presence is a top priority for his constituents, as is lava recovery aid.

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“We are all aware that the population of Puna has been steadily growing, and we need our law enforcement to be able to keep pace with the issues that come with such growth,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said in a statement issued Wednesday.

The resolution, which is nonbinding, notes the Hawaii Police Department reports a 117 percent increase in calls for service in Puna in the last decade and an increase in violent crimes, including officer-involved shootings. Often, patrol officers have to travel great distances that result in longer response times for nonemergency calls as dispatchers prioritize calls in the interest of public safety.

The resolution, the councilman’s first, comes seven months after a Puna patrol officer, Bronson Kaliloa, was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Mountain View.

Mayor Harry Kim called Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s resolution “very well-written as far as the accuracy of the information,” but added the money isn’t there to fund more officers.

“The administration cannot base their budget on resolution. Our job has to be based on distribution of resources throughout the island based on need, as fairly as possible,” Kim said. “All of the departments were told since December there will be very little increase given and it will be highly scrutinized because of the budgetary shortfall. And that has proven to be more than true.”

The county’s main revenue stream comes from real property taxes. The lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea volcano last year destroyed more than 700 homes and reduced the taxable value of those properties to zero.

The residents of Hawaii County — by far the state’s poorest county, with a median household income of $56,395 in 2017 according to the U.S. Census Bureau — started paying a one-quarter cent surcharge on the state’s general excise tax starting Jan. 1.

U.S. Census population data shows the Puna district had a population of 45,517 people as of 2016, slightly less than that the 45,579 people in Hilo’s urban core, and Puna’s growth is faster than Hilo’s.

Puna also is a geographically larger district than South Hilo. Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s resolution said Puna is currently patrolled by eight officers per shift.

Police Chief Paul Ferreira said Puna and South Hilo have essentially the same numbers of officers working per shift.

“At times, I know that Puna has more guys (on patrol) than Hilo. It depends on what’s happening, how many guys are sick, how many guys are on vacation,” Ferreira said. “Pretty much, they run in line … where they have about the same. Hilo may have 10, Puna may have eight or nine.

“If you ask me, do I need officers in Puna, I’m going to tell you yes. If you ask me, do I need officers in Ka‘u, I’m going to tell you yes. Do I need officers in Kona? I’m going to tell you yes. Hilo, as well.”

Assistant Police Chief Sam Thomas told the Hawaii County Police Commission last month the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $69.3 million, with a $4.2 million supplemental budget, which Ferreira said is essentially the department’s “wish list.”

“The only increases have been for whatever negotiated pay raises there have been and increases in utility services,” Ferreira said. “Other than that, it’s a status quo budget. No increase in staffing, no increase in training equipment or anything else.”

Ferreira said the top item in his supplemental budget request is “first-line supervisors in some of our smaller districts.” That means sergeants, who patrol, as well.

“Right now, we have districts that operate without any supervisor on duty, and they have to depend on the adjacent district to respond in the event something occurs,” he said. “We were put on notice during our accreditation process that this is not a good practice. So I made it a priority that we need to look at getting those first-line supervisors out there.

“I know everyone is saying no, we want more police officers. You put more officers out there, they need more supervision. And by putting another sergeant out there, you’re putting another body out on the road.”

The chief told commissioners last month the supplemental budget request also includes funding requests for equipment, body cameras, vehicles and computers.

The department’s budget for the current fiscal year, which expires June 30, is $67.5 million, which includes 450 sworn officers and 144 civilian personnel. Ferreira told the County Council Finance Department last April those numbers are slightly higher than the national standard of police officers per capita, but don’t take into account the island’s size or the number of visitors.

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“It’s not something new that there’s a call for more services, more officers islandwide,” Ferreira said. “There hasn’t been any increase in officers since, I want to say, 2004 or 2008 — for some years. Puna was the last district to get additional officers.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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