Police union fears Honolulu department can’t recruit its way out of its staffing crisis

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Honolulu has increased its efforts to recruit police officers, including a $25,000 signing bonus announced in March, but union officials say the department is losing so many officers per year that focusing on hiring alone won’t do enough to fill its gaping vacancies.

Between 2020 and 2023, HPD lost 589 sworn officers and only hired 274 new recruits, resulting in a net loss of 315 officers, according to a data analysis by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

The department has seen an uptick in applications. It received 1,171 applications between January and June 2024 compared with 894 during the same period last year, according to data provided by HPD. In April alone, the month after the mayor announced the hiring bonus, HPD received 247 applications, compared with 153 in April of last year.

But even if many more people apply, the vast majority will be rejected outright for not meeting the minimum qualifications, said Jonathan Frye, chair of the police union’s Honolulu chapter. Of those who enter the academy, about a third will drop out before graduation. Those who do make it through will need four months of field training and another four months of probation before they become street-ready officers, according to SHOPO.

“If you want to actually fix the problem, you’re looking at anywhere between 180 to 200 recruits per year just to start seeing turnaround,” Frye said. “And we’re not hitting those numbers, and I don’t even know if we can physically get those numbers.”

While hiring initiatives are important, retention has to be a priority as well so police departments don’t continue to lose their most experienced officers, said Jack Rinchich, president of the United States Law Enforcement Foundation.

“Every time a seasoned officer leaves, I don’t care how many you hire, you cannot replace that skill and expertise that exists within them,” he said. “When you lose those senior officers, yeah, you could fill their slot, but you’re bringing a person that’s unseasoned.”

Why Are People Leaving?

In 2023, the department lost 143 sworn officers, according to Frye. Sixty-eight retired, 35 permanently resigned, 23 resigned on “probable” status (meaning they still had time to change their minds), one person died in the line of duty and the remaining officers left for reasons including termination and discharge. The loss was down from 2021 when 227 officers left the department, including 94 retirements, 22 resignations and 68 probable resignations.

Frye said the higher number in 2021 was likely due to the bargaining contract expiring. He said it’s common for those eligible for retirement to retire at the end of a contract. On average, he said, the department loses about 140 to 150 officers per year.

One reason is a growing trend of young people not wanting to stay in the profession for the long haul, he said.

“It was not uncommon to hear, especially the older more senior officers, saying, ‘Hey, make sure you work 32 years, get that good retirement. It’s a great place to be, you’re going to love it,’” said Frye, who joined the department in 2010 and now works as a detective. “But you don’t really hear talk like that as much anymore. And so, anecdotally, you’re hearing more officers saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to get my 25 years, and I’m out.’”

It’s increasingly common for officers to only work five to 10 years in Honolulu before getting poached by another agency, SHOPO board member Nicholas Schlapak said during an episode of the SHOPO Hour radio program that aired June 3.

Since January 2023, 10 officers have left HPD for other law enforcement agencies, according to HPD human resources data.

Mark Cricchio, a retired HPD major, said during the SHOPO Hour episode that he blames a 2012 change in retirement benefits for deterring newer officers from staying.

“They took benefits away from these officers,” he said. “There’s a lot of other jobs out there that offer better benefits.” One of his officers, for instance, became a postal inspector.

Before 2012, officers could retire after 25 years of service with no minimum age. They’d receive 2.5% multiplied by their years of service and by their average monthly final compensation, which was calculated using their three highest-earning years. Now, to qualify for early retirement, officers must have 25 years of service and be at least 55 years old. Their years of service are multiplied by 2.25% and their average final compensation is calculated by their five highest-earning years, not including overtime.

“It’s a huge reduction in take-home for retirees,” Frye said. “So much so that I don’t think anybody could really, truly retire on just that alone. They’re going to have to find alternative sources of income when they get closer to retirement just to be able to afford and maintain their livelihood here in Hawaii.”

Officer pay in Honolulu is also not competitive with other states when factoring in the cost of living, Frye said.

A metropolitan officer in Honolulu makes $79,008 – $86,912 after completing training and the probationary period. By comparison, the starting salary for officers in San Francisco is $103,116. It’s $82,118.40 – $90,126 in San Diego and $65,507 in Las Vegas the first year after completing the academy.

Honolulu’s inability to compete is shown by its lack of officers from out of state, Frye said. Since August 2004, the department has hired 189 out-of-state officers, and of those, only 27 were still with the department as of June, according to human resources data.

But pay and benefits aren’t the full story, Frye said. The issue that’s preventing many young people from wanting to become police officers is the same one that’s driving many cops away from the force early — a cultural shift in the way the world views policing.

“I think things over the last decade have really, really taken a turn against law enforcement, and the desire to be in the profession, it’s not there like it used to be,” he said. “More and more people are looking to other areas and away from public service, and you can see it with the recruitment numbers.”

Nationally, officers are leaving the profession for many of the same reasons, Rinchich said. They are apprehensive about increased scrutiny of their actions and in many cases feel they lack the resources and support to respond to more serious threats, such as active shooters and terrorist attacks, he said.

A Focus On Retention

A 2023 Department of Justice report on law enforcement recruitment and retention encourages agencies to evaluate whether money spent on recruitment bonuses could be better used to retain current employees and says bonuses are becoming “an obsolete method for recruiting a qualified diverse police force.”

The report notes younger generations increasingly value job satisfaction, work-life balance and other benefits such as paid time off, parental leave, child care, tuition reimbursement and flexible schedules.

Frye said one of his priorities is getting the state to revisit its retirement benefits for officers and make them more attractive and competitive with other agencies. The city could also explore offering a retention bonus to current officers, he said.

HPD is considering a lump-sum payment based on years of service as a retention incentive for employees, spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in an email.

“The department considers recruitment and retention to be equally important and is currently looking at retention incentives for both sworn and civilian employees,” the statement said.

Rinchich said one thing police departments can do is prioritize community policing. Many officers are reporting that staffing shortages make it more difficult for them to do the kind of engagement that makes the job more effective and fulfilling, he said.

Capt. Henry Roberts, who works in HPD’s District 1, which covers Downtown and Chinatown, said 13-hour shifts implemented in August has helped allow officers time to do proactive work, though he acknowledged more staff would make it easier to prioritize community policing.

Roberts, who’s been with the department for 33 years, said he’s noticed the changing public perception of police can wear on some officers. But his desire to serve the community and be a good example for new recruits keeps him on the job.

“I feel like at some point our department is going to start using a lot of the generational knowledge that us senior guys have,” he said. “Sharing that knowledge with the younger guys for me is what kept me here.”

‘Where’s The Breaking Point?’

Oahu has 163 police beats that need to be covered over two patrol shifts per day, and the department currently only has about 640 officers who can cover beats, according to SHOPO. When sick leave and vacation time are factored in, many beats go unfilled every week and officers have to work to cover bigger areas.

On a recent evening in District 8, which covers the area from Ewa Beach to Kaena Point, only 19 of 23 officers assigned to that patrol shift were present. The night was relatively slow with only about seven active calls per hour for issues like arguments, a medical assist for a possible overdose and an unattended death in Kapolei.

But during busy shifts when more than 10 calls come in per hour, officers easily get stretched thin, said Sgt. Barbara Delaforce, who now works in the chief’s office but was previously assigned to District 8. When it gets busy, officers may have to triage what calls they respond to based on severity. Sergeants, who are usually only supposed to act as supervisors, may also have to step in and take cases, she said.

District 8, with 68 unfilled positions, has the most vacancies of any district. That’s partially because it has more positions than other districts due to previous plans to use the Kapolei police station as a receiving desk for arrestees, according to SHOPO spokesman Dustin DeRollo. There has also been a push to use these positions to create a new District 9, but that can’t happen while staffing remains low.

Even if most days are manageable in most districts, being short-staffed impedes the department’s ability to handle emergencies, Frye said.

“What happens tomorrow, and we’ve got a six-car pileup on the freeway and at the same time you’ve got somebody stealing an ATM?” he said. “Where do you dedicate those resources if you don’t have enough to have full coverage … Officers are left trying to do more than they can handle by themselves or with less coverage than would be ideal.”

And patrol isn’t the only area where staffing is short. Of HPD’s 434 sworn vacancies, 209 are for middle management positions ranging in rank from corporal to lieutenant. There are also 187 civilian vacancies. This means all divisions, including investigative units, are stressed, Frye said.

“We want to keep helping the public, we want to keep doing what’s right. But my concern, and the concern of the union, is where’s the breaking point?” Frye said. “What happens next year when we’re 500 short?”

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This story was originally published by Honolulu Civil Beat and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.

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