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Hawai‘i Police Department Struggles With Ongoing Staff Shortages

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The Hawai‘i Police Department has been plagued by staffing shortages from various departments for several years.

Over the past couple of years, HPD has struggled to hire and retain sworn and unsworn employees. Overall, the department has 53 sworn position vacancies and 32 non-sworn positions. Dispatch currently has the most openings among non-sworn employees with 16 vacancies.

HPD Chief Paul Ferreira (PC: HPD website)

“I think the large number of vacancies in dispatch is the biggest concern, as well as the criminalist and IT positions,” said Lt. Rio Amon-Wilkins.

HPD currently has only one criminalist. The Department is actively trying to hire two more criminalists. A supervisor position within the crime lab has been open since 2020.

“Like the rest of the nation, in both the private and public sectors, we are experiencing staffing shortages, but are maintaining our levels of service,” Hawaii Police Chief Paul Ferreira stated in an email to Big Island Now on Thursday. “For our department, the impacts are to our personnel having to work overtime to ensure that we continue to provide services and maintain adequate coverage in all areas.”

The Criminalist

One of the primary jobs of a criminalist is to test drugs recovered from the streets.

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“With the abundance of drugs in the community testing it in house is a huge benefit, otherwise we’d have to send it off island,” said Amon-Wilkins, adding the criminalist is a “busy, busy position.”

Haylee Roush is HPD’s sole criminalist. She moved here from California to take the position at HPD just over a year ago.

Roush said her duties as a criminalist include testing seized drugs, firearm operability and serial number restoration. She also processes evidence to see if there are prints and DNA swabbing.

“I’ve been doing so many cases they all kind of blur together after a while,” Roush said.

Being the only criminalist, Roush said she is also responsible for the administration side of the lab as well, that includes making sure the department’s contracts are staying up for services and accreditations are up-to-date.

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“It creates pressure as it takes away from caseload,” Roush explained. “I’m a week and half behind in case work right now. I’m never really caught up on my case work because I’m busy doing admin stuff.”

Despite the workload, Roush loves her job, saying she enjoys the attention to detail.

“Being able to have something small and connecting it to a larger picture, it’s like a puzzle,” Roush said.

Roush couldn’t point to one reason as to why there are hiring and retention issues in the crime lab, however she thinks part of it is people who are hired are usually from the mainland and don’t have ties to stay on the island.

Dispatch

Dispatchers were recently reclassified as police communications officers. Lt. Robert Fujitake oversees the dispatch center. He said the current staff is doing an “amazing job and are towing the line.”

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The department has open recruitment right now. Fujitake said there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people applying.

Jason O’Brien, supervising police communications officer, has worked at the dispatch more than 17 years.

“With the staff shortages, we also deal with sick leave and vacation,” O’Brien said. “We’ve been understaffed for years.”

O’Brien said retirements and employees who start families also take people away from the job.

Dispatchers, O’Brien said, are the first, first responders as they are answering the emergency calls.

“We have to distinguish within the first few seconds what emergency it is whether is police, medical or fire,” he said. “We say it’s the worst day of someone’s life, and we deal with it all day long.”

Dispatchers work in three shifts putting in 12-hour days. O’Brien said many times employees are working 16 hours or coming in early after just six hours off between shifts.

“It’s definitely challenging, which is why it’s hard to keep positions,” he said, adding the dispatchers they do have take pride in serving the community in spite of the long hours.

O’Brien added it takes a special person to care to work those crazy hours and family at home to support those hours.

New Hires

While the struggles to hire in the various departments continue, HPD has recently hired all evidence specialist positions within the criminal investigations section.

Kristen Conrad, 24, is one of the latest hires to HPD as evidence specialist I. Originally from New Jersey, Conrad has been working with the police department for about three months.

Newly hired evidence specialist Kristen Conrad looks through a microscope. (PC: Hawai’i Police Department)

Amon-Wilkins said evidence specialists help at larger and smaller crime scenes.

“A lot of times we’ll have evidence at two three different crime scenes,” he said. “They’re taking diagrams photographing, recovering and processing evidence.”

Their work, Amon-Wilkins said, is extremely time consuming.

This is Conrad’s first job as an evidence specialist. She said it’s everything she hoped and dreamed it would be.

“I like being behind the scenes and looking at the evidence and going out and collecting evidence and helping officers, making it a little bit easier on them,” Conrad said.

Conrad is partners with Jennifer Minaai, the longest-employed evidence specialist who has been with the department for 13 years. Throughout that time, Minaai said Conrad is her fourth partner.

Minaai does diagrams of scenes, takes pictures, collects swab samples and takes prints.

“You don’t know what you’re doing sometimes,” Minaai said. “New stuff pops up and you have to think outside the box, and it keeps you on your toes.”

While Minaai loves her job she admits it’s been hard to keep people in the department.

Minaai said two of her former co-workers chose to have a family. Being an evidence specialist, she added, can be stressful as they do get called out in the middle of the night at times.

Also, there are a lot of people who come to the HPD’s lab who aren’t from Hawai‘i.

Despite the retention issues, Minaai and Conrad love their jobs.

“It’s a really good environment,” Minaai said. “I like that what I’m doing, I’m helping other people.”

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.
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