Residents Raise Concerns Over Merged Police Districts

October 26, 2019, 7:30 AM HST (Updated October 26, 2019, 7:28 AM)
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The merger of Hāmākua and North Hilo police districts has some residents concerned that it leaves the Laupāhoehoe station without a ranking officer.

Three months ago, the two districts were merged in an effort to maximize police resources within the Hawai‘i County Police Department. As a result, all officers report to work at the Honoka‘a police station.

While police are still servicing North Hilo, it’s not manned the same way, with the lieutenant now stationed in Honoka‘a. Two officers typically get assigned to cover the North Hilo station/area beat daily.

“Although not always at the North Hilo station, there are (ranking officers) at the North Hilo station often as well,” said Hawai‘i Police Maj. Robert Wagner.

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Lucille Chung, 79, known as the guardian of North Hilo, spoke on behalf of the North Hilo Community Council at the Hawai‘i County Police Commission meeting on Oct. 18 about their concerns of losing their lieutenant. She told Big Island Now this week that it appeared the commissioners were going to let things remain the way they are.

“It’s important there is a police presence to supervise the officers and take reports,” Chung said.

Chung firmly believes police moved forward with the merger out of convenience to create one work schedule instead of two. However, Wagner explained that staffing of North Hilo/Hāmākua has appeared only on one schedule for at least the past 10 years, with officers at times being assigned to both districts.

This is not the first time a ranked officer was moved to the Honoka‘a station. In the 1990s, Chung said their captain was moved to Hāmākua, which left their district without a lieutenant. With the merger, she doesn’t think her district is getting the same supervisory attention it had been in the recent past.

“When you’re a small district, you have to fight for everything you have, and it’s disheartening that they keep taking,” Chung said.

The North Hilo District is the smallest district in population and the slowest police district on the island. Technically, Wagner said, the district is getting more coverage than it was previously, since the combined district forces came with two additional sergeants.

Along with the lieutenant, North Hilo was priorly staffed with two sergeants, eight police officers and one community policing officer prior to the merger.

The Hāmākua station prior to July was staffed with one captain, three sergeants, 12 police officers, one community policing officer and one school resource officer.

With the two districts merged, Hāmākua and North Hilo are now manned with one captain, one lieutenant, five sergeants, two community policing officers, one school resource officer and 20 patrol officers.

With the captain and lieutenant based in Honoka‘a, Wagner said, if community members call the Hāmākua station and request a meeting with a ranking officer they will meet in North Hilo. Depending on if two sergeants are working, Wagner explained, one will go to North Hilo. If there is one sergeant working, he will primarily be in Honoka‘a but will also go to North Hilo.

Growing up in North Hilo, Chung mused, the Laupāhoehoe station used to be a full-functioning police station — with a jail. The building also used to hold court. However, as appearances declined, cases were moved to Hilo.

Chung knows that over time, things happen and adjustments have to be made. However, she doesn’t think the merger had to be one of them.

“What they see on paper is that they’ve improved rank structure,” Chung said. “It is my belief that if this (merger) goes well, the North Hilo substation will no longer exist.”

The police department doesn’t intend to reverse the merger and officials have no plans of closing the Laupāhoehoe substation.

A call Friday to Wayne De Luz, chairman of the police commission, went unreturned.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat. Tiffany is an award-winning journalist, receiving recognition from the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists. Tiffany grew up on the Big Island and is passionate about telling the community’s stories.

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