HPD’s Special Enforcement Unit back apprehending criminals in West Hawaii

  • Current Special Enforcement Unit leader Sgt. Kalae Lee, left and former leader Lt. Edwin Buyten. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — After a brief hiatus, the Hawaii Police Department’s Special Enforcement Unit is back to apprehending criminals in West Hawaii.

Although around in one form or another for decades, SEU became a long-term unit in September 2017 under the leadership of then-Sgt. Edwin Buyten.

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Area II Assistant Chief Robert Wagner said the Kona unit started with Buyten and another officer looking into a graffiti artist who was hitting Kona. Then it continued with more pressing issues such as the apprehension of a fugitive that was a key witness to a murder case.

“They would address anything else that would come up, such as robberies, burglaries, nuisance homes involving drugs, etc. They filled a gap that occurred often when the CID detectives investigate a case as well. When a big case came up, the CID detectives would investigate the case, collecting evidence, interviewing suspects, processing the scene, etc., and SEU would look for the suspect,” said Wagner. “This is crucial in police work as the detectives cannot do both, and finding the suspect which keeps the community safe and brings him/her to justice is expedited with SEU.”

The success of SEU has a lot to do with its components, he said. The sergeant in charge and his supervisory skills plays a vital role, and the officers who are selected are handpicked to ensure they have the best people out there getting the job done.

Comprised of five officers, the unit serves as a complement to other departments such as vice, criminal investigation, community policing, patrol and juvenile aid.

“Having the ability to work without time restraints within a think-tank type of unit, collectively you can sit down and put your heads together and solve the issue long-term. To have that ability within a police department is pretty rare, said Buyten.

From September 2017 until it’s respite in August due to Buyten’s promotion to lieutenant and reassignment of the remaining members, SEU logged an impressive 800 arrests for approximately 1,800 offenses.

But with a new crew and leadership from Sgt. Kalae Lee, the unit reconvened on Oct. 16.

“Our goal is to reduce crime. We want to address crime trends that are happening, and where it will take us geographically,” Lee said.

The unit is looking at a lot of felony crimes and has the time to address specific issues.

The objective changes depending on where the unit is needed. They cover all of Area II, from North Kohala to Ka‘u, and will tackle issues as the need arises.

“Obviously, with the population, you’re going to get more of it here in Kona,” Lee said. “If there’s something that’s occurring and is a big problem, we may spend a week or two up north and then we could have something that is pressing and may have to drive out to Ka‘u four or five times a week. We move to the specific places we are needed.”

One area of concentration for the unit is apprehending individuals with large outstanding warrants.

“We gather intel and speak to people all the time as far as locating them and bringing them in. That is a big part of what we do,” said Lee.

Lee said narcotics is always a big issue because with narcotics comes other illegal activities.

“A lot of people arrested for narcotics also have warrants, so SEU works closely with vice, sharing information they receive, which has led to the success of the unit,” he said.

Lee, a 15-year veteran of the department and Konawaena graduate, was born and raised in Kona. This is his hometown, so he has a sense of responsibility to keep it safe.

“I’m happy to be a part of the unit. I’ve got some great guys working under me,” he said. “It’s about being proactive and getting out there, paying attention to what’s going on and listening to the community.”

Lee said the community’s continued support of the police department is what helps them do their job.

“In reality we can’t do our job without having a good relationship with the community and we want to continue to build on that. We appreciate them being vigilant with what they see and what they tell us,” he said. “The community sees things a lot of times before we do, so having an open relationship and being able to converse with each other and having them feel comfortable coming to the police is really important.”

Lee said in June and July 2017 there was a spike in thefts, burglaries and robberies, but once the unit was formed statistics show they put a good dent in those crimes. The numbers always go up and down, but SEU’s job is to analyze the numbers and geographic locations to determine what they can do to address the trends.

The Kailua Village area is always a high priority.

“Being a plain clothes unit we go down there and address specific things. We can stop for a minute and take a look at why it’s happening, where it’s happening and who’s doing it. Once you start giving the attention, the people committing the crimes realize that too. That’s where you start seeing results,” he said.

Lee said they have seen a rise in firearm offenses and one of their major roles is to get the guns out of the hands of the criminals.

“We’re seeing more guns out on the street, and that’s unfortunate. We’re working our best to make sure that we put a dent in that, to get as many firearms that don’t belong out there off the street,” he said.

During his term at the helm, Buyten said having the ability to address long-term issues for the community was the most rewarding aspect of SEU.

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“SEU knows that failure is not an option, when given a specific assignment they have an extremely high success rate,” said Wagner.

“In the end, it’s what the community needs,” said Lee.

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