Monday, March 22, 1999

Wanted: More
than a few
good cops

Island police departments step up
recruiting efforts, but many
applicants fail literacy requirements

By Anthony Sommer


Police officials in all of the state's four counties are seeing more and more vacant positions go unfilled because there are not enough qualified applicants.

Many are tested but few are chosen, and the result is empty seats at all the police academies. The biggest hurdles are the written exams, which eliminate up to half the applicants.

In its last recruiting drive, the Honolulu Police Department filled only 35 of 60 available openings at its police academy, according to Capt. Alan Arita.

Kauai filled only three of six vacancies, according to Inspector Mel Morris.

The Big Island's most recent police officer job announcement reads, "Continuous recruitment until needs are met."

So all three police departments are gearing up statewide efforts to recruit new officers at high school and college job fairs, in shopping malls and at military bases.

Don't be surprised to see recruiters from Honolulu, Kauai and the Big Island on the same campuses at the same time.

"Just like the military recruiters, we're going into the schools statewide on Career Day and telling the next graduating class they can have a future as a police officer," said Sgt. Jay Enanoria of the Hawaii County Police Department.

The Maui Police Department is facing the same shortfall, but officials hope more intense recruiting within their own county will fill the need.

Traditionally, all police jobs in the four counties have been open to applicants from throughout the state, but until now no major effort was undertaken at statewide recruiting.

Honolulu, Kauai and the Big Island all made their decisions separately, and all came to the same conclusion: Their traditional low-key methods aren't drawing enough qualified people. The recruiting drives are only partly in response to the loss of officers to mainland police departments.

The real problem, they say, is finding recruits who can read and write, solve math problems and touch their toes.

The first test given in every department is a written exam. On Kauai, about 40 percent of the applicants fail. On Oahu, it's 50 percent, officials said.

According to the Kauai Police Department recruiting notice, the written test includes reading comprehension, writing skills, reasoning ability and ability to accurately complete forms.

In order to take the test, an applicant must have a high school diploma or have passed a high school equivalency examination.

Police recruits wash out for lots of other reasons: Failing the psychological tests and background checks run high. Many can't meet the physical fitness requirements.

But they don't get to those hurdles unless they pass the written exam.

In its last recruiting drive, the Honolulu Police Department attracted 1,000 applicants for 60 vacancies in one of four academy classes operated annually. They could find 35 qualified to go the academy, leaving 25 vacant seats in the classrooms.

That works out to 100 unfilled positions per year.

The department has 239 vacancies and more than 200 officers with more than 25 years' service who can retire at any time.

"We're looking at everything, at whatever we can do to attract quality applicants," said Arita.

Similarly, the Kauai Police Department tested 400 applicants for six vacancies. They found three who met the standards.

And out of 1,039 applicants last year, the Big Island could find only 15 qualified to take police training.

Gabriella Cabanes of the Big Island's Civil Service office said every county uses a different written exam, although all versions used in Hawaii are widely used by mainland police departments.

The Big Island's is multiple choice, and there is no set passing grade. Instead, each group taking the test is graded on a curve. The questions, Cabanes added, "are very confidential."

Since the departments don't want to lower their standards, they've decided to get out and seek better candidates.

Right now, a one-year state residency requirement pretty much limits them to recruiting in Hawaii. All the chiefs are backing a bill in the Legislature that would allow them to recruit on the mainland.

The Honolulu Police Department also has an internal rule that forbids lateral transfers from the police departments of any other county. Departments on the neighbor islands do not have that restriction.

"Ideally, I want officers with good people skills," said Kauai Police Chief George Freitas. "It doesn't have to be the top athlete. An assistant manager of a department store who regularly deals with upset customers probably would make a good police officer."

Since the pay for police officers is the same statewide -- $2,548 a month to start -- each island is going to be selling itself as a place to work and live.

Maui is facing the same shortage of qualified applicants, and the police department is stepping up recruiting, particularly at Maui Community College and among graduating high school seniors and military personnel. "We just haven't seen the need yet to get so far-flung in our search," said Lt. John Morioka.

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