Maui’s Police Department has a public trust problem. It’s been plagued with attrition, rocked by internal disputes, and faulted for its lack of transparency. New Maui Police Chief John Pelletier says he will fight to bring change.
Written and photographed by Viola Gaskell
On a sweltering day in mid-December, a modest crowd of a few dozen police officers, politicians, journalists, and other residents stood outside the Wailuku Police Station to watch Maui’s new police chief take his oath of office in the mid-morning sun. After a blessing from the police chaplain, John Pelletier shed the last remnants of his former position as a Las Vegas police captain as he was sworn in by Maui Judge Kirstin Hamman. Pelletier’s wife, Cristy, and their 13-year-old twin son and daughter watched as he and his handpicked deputy chief Charles Hank, another veteran Las Vegas officer, formally took their places atop the Maui Police Department’s previously precarious hierarchy of command.
Pelletier thanked his new fellow officers, the Maui Police Commission, and a list of local activists and politicians, including Mayor Michael Victorino, who was ill, his administration said, and not in attendance. Lastly, Pelletier said, “I would not be here without two things: the grace of almighty God and the love and support of my wife, Cristy.”
As the presentation of colors commenced, Pelletier and Hanks saluted the Maui officers, who returned the gesture from their post in the shade of nearby monkeypod trees. A tall, blonde woman from Las Vegas, who said she was a close friend of the Pelletiers commented on the “soft salute” from some of the officers. She said the perfunctory gestures gave the impression that the outsider chief would receive a warm welcome from some, but certainly not all, of his new colleagues.
Activist and legal observer, Keisa Liu, who was in attendance that day, said she felt “hopeful” about the new chief. Concerned citizens like Liu, police commissioners, retiring officers, and county council members including Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, had vocally supported the hiring of an outsider police chief—Pelletier—because for years MPD has allegedly been, for many, a hostile place to work, weighed down by a culture of favoritism and retaliation, and a lack of transparency and data. Liu, who turned her attention to MPD’s relationship with the community after Black Lives Matter protests rippled across the nation in 2020, said that she began looking at the force from the outside, talking to community members about their issues with police. But it wasn’t long before officers themselves increasingly began to come forward to voice their concerns about the department’s inner workings. “I started to realize that if we want a police force that is good for our community, we need to fix what’s inside,” she said.
John Pelletier takes policing very seriously. His father was a police officer, and his stepmother was a police commissioner. God plays a big part as well. Pelletier was the incident commander on October 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire into a crowd on the Las Vegas strip. Pelletier got a tattoo on his back to commemorate the victims. “There’s a Bible verse, and I have 58 notches on the sword for the 58 fallen, and one of the notches is blue for the officer we lost,” he said.
Pelletier has always known he wanted to end up on Maui, the island where he proposed to his wife and where his birth mother lived for a time. The tattoo that covers his right arm—an amalgamation of warrior markings, shark teeth, birds, and Lauhala fans—was done “out of love and respect for the islands” by a tattoo artist from Kauai he befriended in Las Vegas.
Pelletier has been meeting with the press frequently since his selection was announced. The morning he met with Maui Times, he had back-to-back interviews. Despite stock phrases like, “You’ve got to know your problem places, problem people,” and “Imagine that you don’t have use of 25 percent of your body” (a staffing shortage analogy), Pelletier’s speech is part planned, part personable.
The MPD inherited by Pelletier has been battered in recent years by scandals that have risen to the top ranks of the department and left morale depleted. The top position opened up after Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu retired in April. Faaumu announced his retirement shortly after a scandal in November, 2020, when he was accused of a hit-and-run.
Security footage of the incident—showing Faaumu backing his truck into a parked motorcycle at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Shopping Center in Kahului and driving away—was posted online by the anonymous YouTube user “Johnny Wishbone.” Emails claiming that Faaumu had not been reprimanded for the hit-and-run because of familial ties with Mayor Victorino were sent to news outlets and the police commission. The emails were sent from an encrypted account, email@example.com, and later alleged to be written by a group of assistant chiefs and captains intent on forcing Faaumu into retirement.
The murkiness surrounding the incident led to pressure on the Maui Police Commission to make its selection process for a new police chief public, and it complied. The same month Pelletier took over, a number of veteran officers retired. Assistant chiefs Victor Ramos and John Jakubczak, both of whom made a bid for the top position, as well as four lieutenants, a detective, and Deputy Chief Dean Rickard, who had been acting as interim chief, took with them a combined 227 years of service.
Numerous testimonies given during the Commission’s hearings in October suggested serious problems within the force. Veteran MPD officer Marjorie Kahoʻokele-Pea, who retired last year, said that morale was “really bad. We can’t keep officers here, nobody wants to stay, and we can’t hire people.” She emphasized that officers had declined to speak out under current leadership “because of fear of retaliation or basically career suicide.”
Outside of the hearings, allegations were darker. Detective Christopher Schmitt, who said he had been docked pay and had his gun taken away for standing his ground against his superiors, spoke out in September against “a culture of favoritism, nepotism, and retaliation.” Schmitt, who was on medical leave at the time, alleged that two officers had been kidnapped by fellow officers and taken to Kahakuloa where they were interrogated and threatened. He said the alleged kidnapping was “the result of extortion targeting the former chief.”
Maui Times was unable to confirm whether the two officers were, in fact, kidnapped. One of them, speaking from the Molokai Police Station, where he had since been transferred, said, “I have no comment. I don’t want to talk about whatever you are wanting to inquire about.”
Pelletier said that though he believed there was “something in the pipeline” regarding Schmitt’s allegations, it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment on an internal past administration issue, “especially when there are implications that it’s why the former chief left.”
He added that though he’d heard whispers of alliances and cliques within the department, he had not seen any sign of this in his first 28 days on the job. “The nice thing about being selected is, I don’t have any obligations to anybody, and I’m not in anybody’s clique,” he said. “And I’ve made it very clear I’m going to promote based on content and character and work ethic. I do not have the time or the inclination to deal with who was on whose football team.”
That said, expanding the team and ending the six-year attrition streak is a priority for Pelletier. At press time, the department employed 299 officers and 102 additional personnel (which includes top officials and civilian positions like dispatch). Pelletier has asked the county for an extension in the budget to hire a full-time professional recruiter to bring the staff up to its allotted 400 officers.
According to Lt. Audra Sellers, head of MPD’s community relations, the staffing shortage has taken a toll on officers. While 75 percent of sworn positions are currently filled, the number of active officers is even smaller, considering those on leave, Sellers said. “When it really comes down to it, there is often even less staffing than there is on paper,” she said.
When officers are out on leave without a full base staff, it forces other officers to work overtime, which Sellers says brings down morale. “You’re already working five days a week, 12 hours a day, and you’re being held over again on your weekend, so you’re getting one day off a week,” she said. Despite prized overtime pay, Sellers said that attrition then increases because “quality of life, in reality, is low because you’re not home with your family and you’re missing weekends and holidays. Meanwhile, there’s no upward mobility because you have to fill patrol first,” she said.
Pelletier, who said he has been clocking 60 hour weeks since he started, asked that his salary be raised from $158,851 to $195,000 because, unlike other officers, he is not eligible for overtime pay. The Police Commission said that at the Feb. 11 Salary Commission meeting it will recommend that Pelletier be paid $205,000, nearly 30 percent more than his contracted pay and more than he himself recommended.
The United States does not have a national standard for staffing police departments. Cities, towns, and rural areas have varying needs when it comes to law enforcement. Some departments staff according to population, others according to crime rates.
MPD’s staffing needs are determined by population and the somewhat arbitrary rule of thumb of 20 sworn officers for every 10,000 people. MPD has just over 18 officers for every 10,000 residents; that’s slightly more than the national average of 16 officers per 10,000 residents for a similar mid-size population center. Dozens of counties on the West Coast have fewer police officers per capita than Maui; Salinas, California, a county with a comparable population to Maui, had only 7.7 sworn officers for every 10,000 residents in 2019.
Maui County is safer than two thirds of U.S. counties, according to crime data collection service Crimegrade. Though violent crime in Maui County has increased in the past decade, overall crime has gone down year on year. Does Maui Nui need to maintain staffing norms above the U.S. average?
Since three million tourists annually supplement Maui County’s population of 165,000, Pelletier argued that employing 400 sworn officers “is a fair, adequate number that has been weighed in and funded over several decades and processes. There’s been justification for each of those positions.” Pelletier, who was on the scene during the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, said that he thinks having a fully staffed police force is paramount to keeping people safe, if, for example, a mass shooting were to occur.
With some of the most restrictive gun laws in the U.S., Hawai‘i has, perhaps, more built-in protection than other states. A 14-day waiting period is required, automatic firearms are illegal, police departments conduct thorough background checks, and—because of the Pacific Ocean—transfer from another state is prohibitive.
In 2020, nearly $9 million of the department’s $63 million budget was spent on overtime in order to adhere to staffing standards. Without public data on the matter, it is unclear whether MPD’s preexisting minimum staffing requirements match the department’s workload. Pelletier tasked his deputy chief, Charles Hank, and his assistant chiefs with a full staffing study that is already underway.
In addition, Pelletier said he is in the process of building an “intelligence-led policing concept and strategy, so that you use real-time crime data to know where your problem people and problem places are, so that you can have proper staffing. That didn’t exist, so we’re having to build this. You have to have intelligence-led policing to know where your staffing issues are,” he asserted.
Though staffing according to established crime hot spots is indeed a solution for a dearth of officers, critics argue it can be a self-reinforcing practice. Crime is more likely to be detected in the areas where it is being looked for and where it is most evident, which is not to say that it is not occurring elsewhere. Ben Lowenthal, a deputy public defender who regularly writes about law on Maui, said he hoped the strategy would be highly nuanced, account for less evident crime so as not to have an outsized effect on low-income areas and neighborhoods of color. “The overwhelming number of our clients come from poor and disenfranchised parts of Maui. While I’m sure there are affluent defendants from Wailea or Kaanapali, police seem to patrol the same neighborhoods, and homeless camps with high concentrations of non-white populations.”
“It’s not just where police go, but what they do,” he added, explaining that white collar crimes like embezzlement and fraud require investigation and are harder to spot, so it is not necessarily the incidence of crime, but the incidence of more visible crime that have an outsized effect on where law enforcements patrols. White collar crimes “aren’t the kind of things you stumble onto while patrolling the streets,” he said. “When you see people living in the open or in a car, your chances of finding illegal activity are much higher.”
Homelessness not a police matter
As homelessness has increased on Maui, the county’s primary response to the issue has been to send MPD officers to areas where the houseless congregate or establish their makeshift homes. This approach has been widely criticized by advocates for the houseless who argue that the issue is systemic and that homelessness itself is not a crime. “You cannot police yourself out of homelessness,” Pelletier said, agreeing that homelessness needs to be addressed on a deeper societal level.
One reason addressing homelessness or perceived mental illness in public spaces is often delegated to police officers is the perception that such individuals pose a threat. As Pelletier explained, in some cases, “You have officers here because the service providers are cleaning wounds and treating people and they have needles out. But if this person breaks and goes and attacks them, who’s gonna step in? When that happens, those service providers aren’t coming back—if they don’t feel safe.”
Dr. Dara Rampersad is a first responder and crisis intervention expert who helped launch MPD’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). He said that although people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are statistically unlikely to harm first responders, an officer with CIT training should be sent to the scene via dispatch. MPD has 103 CIT-trained officers and four CIT-trained dispatch personnel—which would be an adequate percentage—if MPD’s 299 officers represented a full staff. Rampersad added that situations involving the homeless or mentally ill are often not as dangerous as they are thought to be. “We do need to pay attention to what our biases are towards people with mental illness and people who are in crisis, as opposed to what the reality of the situation is,” he said.
Public trust and transparency: The information vacuum
Left in the dark about violent events, some Maui residents find it hard to feel safe. Rumors have proliferated in part because of a lack of clarifying information from MPD. In early 2021, posts circulated on social media for weeks alleging that a woman had been attacked by a man decked in camouflage on March 4 while hiking in Olinda Forest. Then on March 18, the Maui 24/7 Facebook page said that MPD’s Criminal Investigation Division was “investigating two separate calls regarding a suspicious male seen in the Olinda Forest area.” The Maui 24/7 description of the male matched that of the attacker in the post two weeks earlier.
The original post claimed that a report had been made. MPD never officially confirmed or denied such a report despite multiple requests for information from Maui Times. A database known as the LexisNexis Community Crime Map shows a “found alive” kidnapping report in the surrounding area that corresponds with the timing recounted in the original post, in which the alleged victim said she called the police after escaping the area and driving to her home (only after her dog fended off the attacker, leaving him with wounds on his face, neck, and shoulder, per the post).
One of the first people to share the original post on Facebook said that he knew the victim, and that she did not want to talk to the press about the attack because she had been harassed by Facebook users who accused her of making it up.
Pelletier said he had heard “something about somebody in military fatigues attacking someone” but was, at the time, not fully informed of the case. He said that though he could not vouch for past incidents, residents can expect more transparency moving forward. “I have a responsibility and obligation to 165,000 people and three million visitors that come to this county and if there’s a story to be told or a message to be sent, this administration will make sure that we get that out and that we are building trust and transparency internally and externally every day,” Pelletier said. “We’re here because policing is a contract with the citizens that you serve—why would you not communicate with them?”
A more verifiable, however tragic, incident was the death of a young man on Halloween night. The police did not issue a statement, and the media provided no coverage. With conflicting claims and unofficial witness accounts, theories abounded, some of which were highly disturbing. Pelletier referred to the death as a “self-harm event,” but the way MPD dealt with the incident raised enough potential for concern to be the first reviewed by a new internal review process Pelletier initiated. “I’ve directed this case to be the first case that we are doing a critical incident review panel on, and so we will have a full understanding of what went right, what went wrong, and what issues there were,” Pelletier explained, when asked about the incident.
The panel, which Pelletier plans to run via a new Office of Internal Oversight, will review any critical incidents, including use-of force incidents, “that may cause issues or concerns,” according to MPD public information officer Alana Pico.
Based on a Las Vegas review model, the panel will send a report to the police chief and the Maui Police Commission on the handling of the incident: what followed policy and what did not, including any errors or misconduct from the officers involved. Pelletier will decide a course of action in response to the report if deemed necessary, on which the Maui Police Commission can weigh in. If the chief decides not to implement any differing recommendations from the Commission, he will have to put his reasoning in writing. And according to the Las Vegas model, the review will be made public.
Pelletier also has recruited a group of community activists, including Keisa Liu, Maya Marquez, Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, and Kimberlyn Scott to join his newly created Multicultural Advisory Council. Liu and Marquez said Pelletier reached out to them about establishing the council, not the other way around. “That doesn’t happen,” Marquez remarked. So, perhaps Pelletier really will listen to the community. He said that understanding what Maui residents want and need, and improving the “contract with their expectations of policing,” is a top priority. “Why would you not bridge that gap and build trust?”
The hard part might be fixing the force from the inside out. When asked about a timeline for fundamental change, Pelletier said, “I made it very clear that I need five to seven years just to change the department, to create organizational change. I’m not making that up—that’s Harvard Business Review. And then plus, you want to do succession planning, so right now I plan to be here for at least 10 years.”