Hawai‘i police officers optimistic new chief Ben Moszkowicz can ‘turn things around’
January 16, 2023, 5:00 AM HST
After the retirement of Hawai‘i Police Chief Paul Ferreira in September, many officers described the department as lacking direction and leadership.
With the recent hiring and swearing in of former Honolulu Police Maj. Benjamin T. Moszkowicz as the new chief, they are hopeful this will change.
Moszkowicz — an outsider who was selected over 43 other candidates, including some within the department — has spent a lot of time thinking about how to lead an agency of about 450 people he mostly doesn’t know. He said it won’t come from sitting in an office.
“I want people to tell me I’m wrong,” said Moszkowicz, 46, who comes to the Big Island with 22 years of law enforcement experience in a variety of roles, but all in Honolulu.
“I’m very conscious that there’s a lot I don’t know. Being able to take measured advise when making a decision is important.”
Moszkowicz was sworn in by Hawai’i County Mayor Mitch Roth as the new chief during a private ceremony on Jan. 11. A public event will take place Jan. 20 at 1:30 p.m. in Kona at the Hawaiʻi County Council chambers located at the West Hawai‘i Civic Center.
Hawai’i Island police officers past and present say some of the issues Moszkowicz and the department need to address are reunification of the East Hawai’i and West Hawai’i operations, the officer shortage and retention problem, lack of training and patrol shift schedules.
Hawai‘i Police Lt. Edwin Buyten said in the early years of his 21-year career he benefited from mentorship and experienced officers who allowed him to grow, and work on investigations from start to finish with their guidance.
“That was a special time, where everyone helped you,” he said.
Buyten said he started to see a culture shift about the time he was made Kona patrol sergeant in 2016. He said unified training was on a decline. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also played a part in eliminating in-person trainings and even department gatherings, which had been a time to foster relationships throughout the agency.
Lt. Buyten said he had the opportunity to speak with Moszkowicz outside of the police commission hearings and found him to have “a sincere disposition about him.”
Based also on what he heard from Moskowicz during the interview process he said he is optimistic Moszkowicz will lead the department to a reunification as one county with one mission.
“If he takes a step back and does a good assessment, he’s got to find a way to unify us,” Buyten said.
During the interview process, Moszkowicz said he planned to spend time at both the Kona and Hilo police stations. Following his selection, he remained committed to that goal and meeting everyone within the department.
Regarding training, Moszkowicz has already been gathering information and analyzing the current situation. He said he doesn’t think it is as bad as some officers think, but he wants to create a comprehensive record of the training that is taking place now.
“If we can consolidate what we’re already doing and document it, not only does it give the community, department and police commission some peace of mind it helps to protect the department in case there’s some sort of lawsuit,” Moszkowicz said. “There’s a lot you can accomplish and is already accomplished with training online.”
Hawaiʻi Police Officer Justin Gaspar, a K9 handler for the Area II Vice Section, said he is hoping for annual recall training, which requires every officer to go back to the academy facilities and do training across the board, including firearms and use-of-force trainings.
Moszkowicz knows there is a lot of training done online, however, he plans to look at trainings that can occur in person such as officer safety and police officer survival and tactical training.
“It’s already happening, but it’s sporadic,” Moszkowicz said, adding sometimes training will occur in Kona but not necessarily in Hilo.
“Using the best practices for these different areas and documenting what we’re doing is a good start,” he said. “It’s January, it’s a new year, and what better time to start than now to get this annual training, get it formalized and start getting it documented.”
Another issue is the shortage of officers.
“We’re hopeful he’ll peel back the layers on why we’re having those issues and address what are the main reasons people are leaving,” Lt. Buyten said.
As of December, Hawai‘i police had 75 sworn vacancies and 47 civilian vacancies. Retired Assistant Chief Robert Wagner said recruitment and retention is the biggest issue plaguing not just Hawai‘i County but the nation as a whole.
“We can’t afford to lose employees,” Wagner said. “If you make HPD a great place to work, people will stay.”
Wagner said when the department isn’t fully staffed it results in officers working longer hours leading to an overtime issue.
One way the department could address recruitment, Wagner said, is to have a recruiting class in Kona. In his 33 years in the department, he said there was never a class in West Hawai‘i. As a result, those candidates between Kona and South Kona areas are forced to drive to Hilo. Many drop out.
“There’s a pool of people that we haven’t even tapped into,” Wagner said.
He also suggested possibly creating housing, so recruits traveling wouldn’t have to drive across the island every day.
Moszkowicz said he knows recruitment and retention of officers is a huge issue.
Some of that comes from the negative perception about police officers that has occurred around the country due to a slew of high profile police shootings and the death of George Floyd while handcuffed.
Part of addressing recruitment, Moszkowicz said, is convincing people in the community that the Hawai‘i Police Department is a great place to work.
Right now, the department competes with the military service. Young people can join the armed services when they turn 18, but they can’t apply to be a police officer until they’re 21.
“How do we get people who are not eligible yet interested enough to hang around till they are?” Moszkowicz questioned.
One idea, the new chief has is creating mentorship or a cadet program to learn about law enforcement. If they are attending college part time, Moszkowicz said it could be possible to pay them a salary. He wasn’t explicit into what their possible duties might entail.
“They get to experience the culture of the department and sense of family,” he said.
Moszkowicz also is looking at how media relations can improve. He conceded that for decades, as a profession, police have hidden behind “no comment.”
“That’s not the way the world works any more,” he said. “I don’t think ‘no comment’ is ever an acceptable answer. Why can’t we proactively share information? I’m very much into sharing what we can share before you ask.”
Officer Gaspar, a 13-year-veteran on the Big Island, said he is excited because the new chief comes from a department “where they have a lot of policies that we’ve been asking for. I know they’re not a perfect department but they’re trying to keep up with the times.”
One of the biggest issues Gaspar would like to see Moszkowicz tackle is the rotating schedule required by patrol officers. Currently, patrolmen are required to work either a graveyard, day or swing shift (2:45 to 11:30 p.m.).
Officers are on a specific shift for two months and then they switch to another shift. Gaspar said this schedule provides officers with a true Saturday/Sunday weekend off only once every six weeks.
“It’s unhealthy physically, mentally and emotionally,” he said. “When I was in patrol I put together proposals on schedule changes, and nothing was done. I know for a fact that the younger generation of officers want to keep up with modern policing.”
Gaspar said the Honolulu Police Department is currently trying the three-day work week with 12 hour shifts. “Four days off sounds really good to me every week,” Gaspar said.
Lt. Buyten said the department has done well maintaining credentials with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., also known as CALEA. But he also hopes Chief Moszkowicz can bring the department into more modern-day policing and flexible patrol scheduling.
Wagner, who retired as assistant chief in November 2020, served in many leadership roles during his 33 years of service, including leading the department in both Kona and Hilo.
While he doesn’t know Moszkowiz, Wagner said: “I wish him the best and I hope he succeeds.”
But Wagner said Moszkowicz is coming in at a disadvantage because he’s from Honolulu and doesn’t know the island or all the personnel.
“He’s got to be steered in the right direction and needs to pick the right people [to surround himself with] who know the Big Island and know how things are done,” Wagner said.
The salary for Hawai‘i police chief is $153,270 a year. This wage doesn’t change unless approved by the County Council.
“Financially, it’s not worth being chief,” Wagner said, adding as an assistant chief he made more than former chief Ferreira at a wage of $156,000 a year.
“It can’t be about the pay,” he said.
Moszkowicz said every time he’s been promoted he’s taken a pay cut. He’s definitely not in it for the money.
“I know I have the skills and the communication ability; I know I can do this job; and I’m confident that I’ll do a great job,” he said. “The anxiety is, I haven’t met everybody yet. It’s that nervous first day jitters kind of stuff that’s keeping me up at night.”
Officer Gaspar said he is “happy for change because at the end of the day change is what we want.”
Lt. Buyten added: “I’m very hopeful this chief will turn things around. The community deserves it.”