Hawai‘i Island police chief implements new recruiting efforts to fill 67 officer vacancies
May 18, 2023, 6:15 AM HST
* Updated May 18, 11:15 AM
Four months ago when he took the helm of the Hawaiʻi Police Department, new chief Ben Moszkowicz sat at his empty desk in Hilo jokingly saying it would never be this clean again.
On a recent workday, his desk’s inbox tray was stuffed with dozens of documents for review — off of which had accumulated during the morning while he was at meetings. Being new, it will take him a little longer to go through the paperwork.
“I’m slowly chipping away at the learning curve,” said the chief, who previously served as a major for the Honolulu Police Department. “There’s a lot I still have left to learn but I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where we’re starting to accomplish things that I wanted to get accomplished.”
Topping Moszkowicz’ initial priority list is getting the department back to full force after years of being short staffed.
He already has put a new recruitment plan into action to fill the vacancies of 67 sworn officers. This plan includes open recruitment year-round and starting a early-hire pilot program for individuals accepted into the recruitment class.
For years, the county only offered two 10-day windows a year that a person could apply to be a police officer.
“That to me is not OK,” Moszkowicz said. “We need to be able to take people in continuously.”
Now, they can apply at anytime on the County website. The starting salary for a new officer is $68,940 with benefits, including paid holidays, vacation, sick leave, military leave, health insurance, group life insurance, a uniforms and equipment stipend, automobile subsidy and retirement.
The department currently has 415 officers. A full force on paper for Hawaiʻi County is 484.
“Realistically, what I’ve come to realize though, is the county probably needs another 60 to 80 officers on top of what we’re already allocated,” Moszkowicz said.
While many of the vacant positions are for patrol, the deputy chief position has yet to be filled since the retirement of Kenneth Bugado in December. Other ranking positions open include a lieutenant in South Kohala, two sergeants — one in Kona and one in Hāmākua — and a sergeant for the Special Response Team.
Moszkowicz said the nationwide average is about 2.4 to 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. At approximately 205,000 residents in Hawai‘i County, that equates to a force of 492-512 officers. And last year, the officers also had to deal with 1.7 million visitors to Hawaii Island.
“Given our extremely rural and geographically isolated nature (not to mention the isolated nature of some of our neighborhood communities, and the increasing demands on law enforcement) I believe the department would be much better positioned to serve the community, solve more crime faster, respond much quicker, and provide more positive community outreach if our department had closer to 550-560 sworn officers,” the chief said.
But now the department is just trying to get back to its allocated number of officers.
In the meantime, to try to cover the workload of the positions that are vacant, the department is spending $510,000 a month ($6.12 million a year) on overtime. That could pay the salaries of 88 new police officers.
While it is not fiscally prudent, Moszkowicz said what keeps him up at night is the health and welfare of the officers. A normal shift is 8 1/2 hours. Now, many officers will come in four hours early or stay four hours later than their regular shift.
“Well-rested officers tend to work safer, be more courteous, and provide better service to the community,” Moszkowicz said. “That being said, with the staffing shortage what it is, to make sure public safety is not compromised, rather than have people working double shifts, or working every day, we have resorted to asking people to come in 4-hours early, stay 4-hours late, or work on one of their days off.”
The chief said he suspects services to the public have not been severely impacted by the officer shortages, as detectives are working overtime to solve cases and sergeants in patrol are backfilling for other patrol slots due to the shortages and vacancies. DUI checkpoints have not suffered significantly as the department has been able to enhance roadblock efforts using grant funding from the State Department of Transportation.
Moszkowicz said the department has less people doing the job, which makes everyone work harder.
“There is no doubt that having weekends and days off help officers to recuperate and come back to work in much better shape,” he said. “I want people who are refreshed and ready to do the job responding to calls.”
Moszkowicz said all patrol divisions in the department are short-staffed, and he’s tried to spread the vacancies out so that no one area of the island is more adversely affected than another.
“But with the increase of population in Puna and Kona, our officers there are stretched especially thin,” he said.
Moszkowicz is optimistic that the new early hire pilot program will increase the number of recruits going through recruit classes. The county officially began continuous recruitment, which will allow for the Department of Human Resources to offer the test once a month as opposed to every six months. The first test in the new process will be the week of June 26.
Prior to this pilot program, the process from applying to the department to joining a recruitment class took anywhere from nine months to a year, Capt. Rio Amon-Wilkins said.
Human Resources conducts the written test and physical agility test. Those who pass were forwarded to the police department where they underwent the remaining screening process, including background check, polygraph, psychological and medical.
Those who passed the screening process would then wait another six to eight weeks for the next recruit class to start.
“We’re losing people because the process takes so long,” Amon-Wilkins said. “If we could speed that process up and get people in the door that will help.”
The new pilot program allows police to hire applicants immediately after passing those screenings.
By using this early-hire model, the chief hopes to get people acclimated to the department’s culture, help them to find a mentor in the department, and get them physically working out with the existing recruit classes. Then, their one-year probation period will begin when the recruit class starts.
Once the application process — which takes 3 to 6 months — begins to play out with continuous recruiting, Moszkowicz said the department will go from two to three recruit classes a year.
“We always lose people between the time the county sends a conditional job offer between when the actual recruitment class starts,” Moszkowicz said.
Hawai‘i police has a recruit class that started Jan. 17 and officers are expected to graduate and enter field training in mid-November. A second class is scheduled to start by mid-July at the latest. A third class is expected to start by mid-November.
In February, Hawai‘i police began offering a $1,000 incentive for applying to the department. Moszkowicz estimates the latest recruitment class of 47 is about 25% bigger because of the money.
New officers are paid $500 after starting the academy. They receive the other $500 when they complete their initial one-year probation.
While he’s optimistic the pilot program has potential to bring on more recruits, Moszkowicz knows it won’t be enough to fill all 67 positions.
And, Amon-Wilkins speculated a dozen more officers will likely leave the department before the year is out, through retirements and people choosing not to stay.
“Given normal attrition with training and due to retirement and other factors, a much more realistic estimate for our sworn positions to be close to 100% staffed is by mid-year in 2025,” the chief said. And that does not included the added positions he thinks the department needs.
Amon-Wilkins, who commands East Hawai‘i’s Criminal Investigation Division, remembered when Moszkowicz first started. He said the chief spoke to all commanding officers and wanted feedback and ideas on how to improve the department.
“He made it very clear that just because something has been done one way for years doesn’t mean it can’t change,” Amon-Wilkins said.
Four months later, the 24-year police veteran had nothing but positive things to say about the new chief: “He’s young  and he’s very open to trying new things.”
For more information, visit the Hawaiʻi Police Department’s Police Officer Recruitment page at www.hawaiipolice.com.