Community and Policing

Program type: 
Saturday, May 20, 2023 - 10:00am
Community and Policing: Where were we, where are we, where will we go?


The facilities that now house the East Hawai'i Cultural Center were originally built in 1932 to house the Hilo Police Department, District Courthouse, and jail. Court staff remained there until 1969 and the police until 1975.

Long before these structures were turned over to EHCC in 1979, fundamental aspects of Hawaiian culture had been transformed by the Western system of law. Notions of land division and ownership, the role of the nuclear family in society, and community regulation of antisocial behavior such as theft or assault had already been entirely upended and replaced by a justice system molded on the values of 19th century Protestant missionaries from New England and capitalist merchants eager to exploit Hawaii’s resources, from sandalwood to the whaling industry to sugarcane.

This is not to say that the situation was static by 1932. On the contrary, historical arrest records show that important changes in the nature of police relations with the East Hawai'i community were well underway by the early 20th century, in particular with regard to how Native Hawaiians interacted with the justice system, in contrast to Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese who were brought to Hawai'i Island to provide a source of plantation labor. (Arrested in numbers much lower than their proportion of the population in the late 19th and early 20th century, Native Hawaiians are now disproportionately subject to incarceration.¹)

In acknowledgment of its history as a police station and courthouse, EHCC is committed to exploring the impact of policing and the justice system on the local community – a commitment that occurs within a larger understanding of the responsibility that museums and cultural institutions have to promote decolonization and indigenization.

As a first step in fulfilling this commitment, EHCC collaborated with University of Hawai'i-Hilo to conduct a survey on community attitudes toward police (findings here). This culminated in a panel discussion to present the results on May 21, 2023. The event was a platform to discuss the current nature of policing, with a particular emphasis on incarceration, as it disproportionately impacts the lives of Native Hawaiian residents. A video of the proceedings is available on the Nā Leo TV website here, and a written transcript that includes the slides that were presented can be found here. Responses to a written interview conducted in preparation for the event with Christin Johnson, Oversight Coordinator for the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, can be found here.

In addition to the UHH students who presented their findings, the panelists were: Amanda Alvarado, Restorative Justice Project Coordinator, County of Hawaiʻi of the Prosecuting Attorney; Kevin Dayton, Senior Reporter, Honolulu Civil Beat; Les Estrella, President and CEO of Going Home Hawaiʻi; Michelle Manalo, Director of Finance, Going Home Hawaiʻi; Iopa Maunakea, Executive Director of Kanaka O Puna and Founder of Men of Paʻa; Ben Moszkowicz, Chief, Hawaiʻi Police Department; and Elroy Osorio, Retired Hawaiʻi Police Department. Biographical statements for each participant can be found here.


The goal of the panel discussion was to address three questions, though in the event it touched on a wide range of concerns related to the justice system. To summarize very briefly, points made during the discussion in response to the three questions were as follows (for a more in-depth understanding, readers are highly recommended to review the transcript and/or video of the proceedings):

Where were we?

Based on the data collected by the students, as well as the commentary by retired policeman Elroy Osorio, police-community relations were relatively positive in the era when EHCC took over the old police station. Elroy recounted a sense of closeness with the community in the 1970s, when he first began policing, noting that everyone knew each other and that police were invited to important family events in the community such as weddings. According to the UHH student survey, when asked about police relationships, 73 percent of the community had a positive view looking back to the decades from 1930 to the 1970s.

Where are we?

Relations have deteriorated from that earlier time. The UHH students found that today, only 32 percent of the community has a positive view of the police. This was echoed by Elroy’s remark, “If you want to know why there's dissatisfaction with policing, ask yourself this: Would you want to be a cop today? I would have to say, ‘no I wouldn't.’” Social ills such as increased homelessness and drug use were mentioned as reasons why policing is both a tougher job today, and why people are less satisfied with what they see as the results of policing. (The national conversation around police brutality was also mentioned as a possible reason for negative views of police, though the problems of policing on the continent are not seen as entirely applicable to Hawai'i.)

Chief Ben Moszkowicz spoke of the shortage of police personnel and the difficulty of filling empty slots. Kevin Dayton, Les Estrella, Michelle Manalo, and Iopa Maunakea all spoke to the pain and inequities of incarceration today, including its disproportionate impact on Native Hawaiians, poor conditions at Hawai'i Community Correctional Center, and the impact of shipping inmates out of state to fulfill their sentences.

Where will we go?

Chief Ben had some encouraging news to report about newly introduced methods to recruit new members to the police department, which hopefully will attract qualified, dedicated new members of the force, and show the public that there are enough police in the community to respond to local needs.

Virtually all speakers, including audience members during Q&A, noted that “the police” are not a separate entity from the community, but rather part of it: the community includes members of the department, citizens who rarely encounter the police, and those who are impacted by incarceration, either their own or that of someone they are close to. The event produced no magic bullet to explain how this complete community can operate together in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, but the importance of finding such methods was clearly articulated. Iopa Maunakea and the Men of Pa‘a offered a compelling example of how people can be brought together through service, by taking food and sympathetic ears to the homeless community that often occupies Kalākaua Park across from EHCC at the conclusion of the event.


A diverse set of facts and ideas were presented in the panel discussion (and will continue to be raised through events such as EHCC’s showing of the film “Out of State,” which documents the experiences of two Native Hawaiians shipped thousands of miles away to a private prison in the Arizona desert). They add up to a compelling set of reasons why everyone in the community should care about community and policing issues. To state a few:

  • Negative perceptions of policing make it harder for the department to recruit – and understaffing slows response times and contributes to a vicious cycle through which policing is not seen as an attractive career, so fewer people join the department.

  • The UHH students’ results suggested that a large segment of the community believes some groups are treated unfairly by the police, an assessment that warrants further investigation. If true, changes are needed for greater equity. If false, countering these perceptions could lead to better police-community relations.

  • Encouraging positive interactions among police and other members of the community, particularly those whose lives have been impacted by involvement with the justice system (their own or that of family members), will help formerly incarcerated individuals to reintegrate into the community more successfully, lowering recidivism rates and providing both direct and indirect benefits to society as a whole.


¹ According to data analyzed by Sally Engle Merry in Colonizing Hawai'i: The Cultural Power of Law, Hawaiians in East Hawai'i were defendants in criminal court in numbers below their proportion of the population in all samples taken between 1893 and 1935, often to a striking extent. But from 1945 through 1975, Hawaiians were a higher percentage of defendants than in the general population, although they were outstripped by Caucasians in 1985, the last year for which Merry presents data. (Sally Engle Merry, “Judges and Caseloads in Hilo,” in Colonizing Hawai'i: The Cultural Power of Law [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000], pages 192-201.) Statistics presented in the panel discussion (see p. 38 of the transcript or around 1:41:34 of the video) show that Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in incarcerated populations today. While the reasons for this go well beyond the scope of the discussion, it seems clear that the historically destructive forces of colonization on the cultural, economic, and health status of the Native Hawaiian community play a substantial role.

The May 21 panel discussion and the UHH student survey were funded by a grant from the Hawai'i Council for the Humanities through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the video, website and educational materials produced through this support do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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