Is It Time for Community Policing in Hawaii?

Picture of honolulu police officer

By: Lokelani Wilder

I have never been one for defunding the police.  If anything, I believe that there are not enough police officers.  Police officers work, they go home, and then they come back to work.  There is no available time to pull a cop out of the line of duty for extensive training and evaluation.  Officers are exposed to traumatic calls for service daily, including child abuse, rapes, domestic violence, car crashes, and murders.  Repeated exposure to these stressors and events may be associated with development of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, somatization, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and burnout.  Evidence suggests that people with mental health disorders are more likely than those without such conditions to commit acts of violence.  

Often when the public deconstructs a crime, we see where the perpetrator previously exhibited indications of mental illness where intervention was necessary but never undertaken.  In some cases, the perpetrator was receiving mental health therapy and should not have had weapons at all.  Our police officers in the performance of their daily responsibilities have mental health issues.  This problem will only get worse with each nationally exposed police shooting and public vilification thereafter.   Police officers are overworked, overstressed, and underpaid.  No matter what profession you have, when you have that combination, it is going to lead to mental-health problems.

The police profession is constructed around the notion of helping others, and for many officers that means showing no signs of weakness, even when it comes to daily stresses and mental health.  Police officers have access to department psychologists and support groups, but they do not often go.  Feeling the impact of things, they had seen or experienced in the line of duty, is considered a weakness, and could even put police officer jobs in jeopardy.  The Police are very macho-oriented profession.  It is the stiff upper lip, do not show any emotion, do not let anything bother your mentality, but, of course, internally, the stress of the job silently impacts officers.  They cannot turn off from police work.  They cannot free their minds because they become conditioned through their traumatic experiences and what training they have had.  Police officers simply cannot switch OFF.  Other pressures include facing the unknown whenever they leave their homes.  Subconsciously, they do not know if they are going to come back home alive or in one piece at the end of the day.  They leave home expecting to face drastically different, dangerous situations every day.  Police officers expect to go from zero to 100 very quickly.  

Research has found that police officers’ heart rates and stress levels spike when they hear sirens. All of this adds up, but we still expect the police to act differently under pressure than do the criminals they confront.  Traditionally, if police officers were to ask for help, they ended up being placed in the bow-and-arrow squadrons where their service sidearms are taken away and they are given desk jobs.  In 2018, NBC Los Angeles surveyed police officers who belong to the Los Angeles Police Protective League.  The survey found that nearly 80 percent of respondents said they experienced critical stress on the job.  90 percent of respondents said seeking mental health therapy as a police officer was stigmatized.  Unfortunately, the organizational mentality and the internalization of stress has been devastating.   In 2019, at least 228 police officers died by suicide, higher than all other line-of-duty deaths combined.  Give the sustained stresses and frustrations associated with the pandemic, and the pressures associated with defunding the police, police officer suicides are going to increase.

Fortunately for now, Hawaii has a below the national average gun violence rate.  Our citizens however have an above the national average fear of gun violent crimes.  The Honolulu Police Department is one of the United States’ 20 largest police departments.  Unlike the other 49 states, Hawaii does not have a state police agency per se or individual city agencies; law enforcement is the jurisdiction of the individual county governments.  There is also a Hawaii Sheriffs Division within the Department of Public Safety. Unlike a traditional mainland where sheriff’s departments are local, the Sheriff Division in Hawaii carries out law enforcement services statewide.  

Hawaii Sheriffs protect all persons and property under the control of the Judiciary and all State facilities; serves and executes court documents; handles detained persons; and provides secure transportation for persons in custody. It also provides law enforcement services at the Honolulu International Airport, Maui Memorial Hospital, Hawaii State Hospital, Waimano Training School and Hospital, and Fort Ruger at the Department of Defense.  The Division is the lead agency of the State Law Enforcement Coalition, which was formed to meet the mandates of the federal Homeland Security Act. The coalition implements federal guidelines on issues related to weapons of mass destruction.  Hawaii Sheriffs provide executive protection services to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and, when requested, national and international dignitaries.  Hawaii Sheriffs do not offer an opportunity for community policing in Hawaii.

Do we therefore create community policing entities within the state?  Hawaii is woefully under budget due to the pandemic.  Even after the receipt of federal stimulus, the Hawaii state government will still be $800 million short in revenue.  We lack the funds to create any new organizations and we lack the funds to expand what we have.  It is necessary for our state’s leadership to talk about officers’ mental health to urge legislative action and procedural changes so that our officers can get the resources they need.  Our legislature should also consider offsetting some of the income inequities officers face by providing them with housing subsidies and down-payment grants.  When we help our officers put money down on a home to be able to permanently live where they work that can really transform trust and communication with the community. 

Our political decision makers should mandate quarterly psychological counseling to normalize mental-health resources so officers can get the help that they need, deserve, and desire.  Maintaining our officer’s mental stability makes our communities safer and will lead to fewer fatalities.  If such services cannot be mandated, the New York Police Departments YPD’s Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance Program (POPPA) is an innovative model that our Hawaiian police forces should consider implementing.  The POPPA website describes the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week program as a volunteer police support network that promises a confidential, safe, and supportive environment to officers. The group’s work ranges from PTSD to marital issues, substance abuse, suicide, and, most recently, Coronavirus.

The Hawaii community also needs to help change the narrative about police work.  Our officers should be viewed as public peace servants, not warriors, or superheroes.  The training that officers receive completely plays into the warrior mentality of what it means to be a police officer, but nine out of 10 of officer daily interactions with people have nothing to do with violence. Unfortunately, police training is flipped.  Police spend much less time on techniques that deal with social interactions compared to tactics that are about physical force.  Police officers needs more tools in their toolbox.  Right now, through experience and training, our officers know that they have a hammer; however, everything our peace officers experience even though potentially dangerous, does not have to be a nail.