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How the Kauaʻi Police Department has reduced its staff vacancy, overtime

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Police departments across the nation and the state have been struggling to keep up staffing, but the Kauaʻi Police Department has reduced its vacancy numbers and overtime costs over the last few years with several strategies.

As of May, the KPD has reduced its vacancies to 18 officers. Just two years ago, that number was 26 out of a staff of around 160. The department has fluctuated its vacancy report, even getting numbers as low as single-digits back in 2021 for a short while.

KPD’s Acting Assistant Chief Mark Ozaki said that’s due in part to streamlining the hiring process for on-island, in-state and mainland candidates.

“They do all their paperwork, their testing electronically and then they actually have a virtual meeting with the psychologist,” he said last week. “So, a lot of times they only really have to come down to the department once in the whole entire process.”

Ozaki, who oversees the administrative and technical bureau, said that one visit would usually be for the written and agility test, which is now optimized to be held in one day, rather than across multiple days.

In the past, candidates would have to come into the Līhu’e headquarters.

One key part to getting more people, Ozaki said, is switching its written test in 2021. The passing rate increased immediately.

Only 24 people passed the written test in 2020. Last year, that number was 55, Ozaki reported.

“Our numbers kind of doubled actually of people that we can now do a background on and see if they’re suitable for hire,” Ozaki said.

At a May Police Commission meeting, KPD Chief Todd Raybuck spoke about recruitment. He said expanding the hiring pool to get somebody through the door has been effective.

“We try to get as many people as we can at the top, because we know all we get at the bottom as a trickle,” he said. “We continue to hit our local recruiting pool, but that well dries up or that well is not deep enough, so we continue to focus on it, we'll continue to try to engage it.”

Since the department is small, it doesn’t have the capacity to overlap training classes, so it’s important they get people through quickly enough to get the next class in.

Ozaki said the department also reviewed its training process and made some elements optional upon hire, like a bike class or segway training, and added some more training on use of force and with firearms. Now, the department can graduate two recruit classes a year in about five and a half month groups.

By bringing in more people onto the staff, the department’s overtime has gone down.

At one point, KPD’s patrol division was seeing 250 canceled days off a month, Raybuck said last month.

"What that means is that we couldn't staff. We didn't have the manpower on patrol to staff the beats," Raybuck said. "We didn't have the officers to be able to respond to calls because of manpower shortages caused by employment deficit. People have to take off for babies being delivered and scheduled vacations and things like that. You can't operate police without police officers.”

Canceled days off, he said, meant that officers were coming in thinking they’d work their regular nine-hour shift only to be asked to work a double.

"It wasn't uncommon for officers to get their first day and sometimes their second day of time off canceled to meet the manpower. To do that, you incur a lot of overtime."

But overtime is common when there’s a staffing shortage, as seen with the Honolulu Police Department.

There are more than 300 vacancies across HPD. A recent audit found more than $38 million was spent on overtime just in 2019.

HPD’s Interim Chief Rade Vanic says the department has conducted another assessment to cap overtime and adjust staffing. It will present the findings to new Chief Arthur “Joe” Logan when he steps in.

“We recently, within the past several months or actually couple months, conducted another staffing study which I look forward to presenting to Chief Logan and looking at exactly where our special assignments are, how officers are distributed across the department, not only in patrol, but also in nonpatrol elements to see what positions are really needed,” Vanic said at a police commission meeting earlier this month.

HPD has tried several strategies to address the shortage, Vanic reported, including increasing recruit classes, restarting its fitness programs for potential candidates and recruiting at career fairs.

“We hoped that by continuing this, and having the additional classes per year, we're able to retain more recruits, thereby reducing the number of vacancies and putting more officers on the road,” Vanic said.

Patrol is often called the backbone of a police department. Bringing in new recruits has been able to offset burnout at the KPD.

“Everybody has to start off in patrol when you become a police officer, so you're gonna expect to do five years or so of patrol before you get a chance to get promoted or put in a specialized unit,” Ozaki said. “So the last thing you want to do is have somebody that gets burned out from overwork in their first five years in their careers and they're thinking, ‘Oh, I got 25 more years of this? I’m out.’”

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