HONOLULU (KHON2) — The police union is questioning why the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) has withheld spending tens of millions of dollars from its budget in recent years, while short-staffing persists and responses to crime decline.

Always Investigating dug into years of budget and spending numbers and compared the data to staffing and enforcement trends. Quite a bit of money set aside for public safety has gone untouched.

Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You

Officer shortages, recruitment and retention are huge issues at police departments nationwide including in the islands. KHON2 found HPD has sat on a lot of money every year, leaving between $6 million to $18 million in each of the last four fiscal years unspent from its general fund budget.

“We need officers on the streets,” said Robert Cavaco, president of the police union SHOPO, “and we’re just wondering how can we be told that there’s a budget crunch, but then the department is giving back millions of dollars at the end of the fiscal year?”

Always Investigating asked HPD and the chair of the police commission about their plan for spending the full allocation possibly on staffing by filling open positions. The commission chairwoman told KHON2 they’d need to review and understand the numbers before commenting.

HPD’s spokesperson said they spent most of it — 95% — and “there will always be a certain amount of unspent funds.”

“The department must have funds available in the event of a large-scale emergency, natural disaster or unplanned events, such as mass rallies and protests,” HPD spokesperson Michelle Yu said in a statement. “Further, the entire amount of appropriated funds is not always available from the beginning of the fiscal year because government accounting practices allot funds by quarter, not annually.”

As for what they will try to spend more on, “the processing and hiring of police recruits and communications officers (dispatchers) is a priority and conducted on a continuous basis,” Yu said.

HPD said last year’s unusually large amount of lapsed funds – nearly $18 million – was more than usual because of pandemic-related factors. Yu explained that:

“Generally speaking, the lapsed funds are attributable to multiple factors, including less court over time due to the courts being closed ($6.1M expended for court OT in FY19, $4.0M in FY20, and $1.3M in FY21), COVID response and enforcement under changing city and state orders, intermittent CARES Act reimbursement for certain payroll and equipment expenses, suspended procurement of goods and services due to COVID-related shortages, and cancellation of travel and training due to the pandemic.”

HPD is tracking 42% spent at the halfway mark of this fiscal year.

“HPD’s FY22 general fund budget is approximately $287 million. At the end of December 2021, the HPD expended approximately $120 million,” Yu added. “At the halfway mark of FY22, the HPD had approximately $166 million remaining or 58% of HPD’s approved budget.”

HPD does expect to spend a bit more after minimum staffing levels were set for patrol districts earlier this month. The interim chief revealed that figure at this week’s Honolulu Police Commission meeting.

“We implemented a minimum staffing of 75%,” Interim Chief Rade Vanic said. “So my expectation is that there shouldn’t be a time where staffing goes below 75%.”

Always Investigating asked HPD how does that work day to day? If the district knows ahead of time that that officers won’t be coming in due to scheduled training or vacations, they can schedule additional officers ahead of time. If officers call in sick on that day, the district will ask off-duty officers to come in.

Cavaco said that doesn’t always pan out. SHOPO points to an example on Saturday in District 2 — which includes parts of Central Oahu and the North Shore — when the watch was about half-staffed.

“The dispatcher called the watch lieutenant and told the watch lieutenant ‘I have multiple priority one cases that are pending, and I have no officers to send them to,’” Cavaco said.

Always Investigating has seen district rosters as recently as today with well under 75% scheduled and assigned, and no fill-ins listed.

“If we have the money there, then do a comprehensive plan on filling the beats with overtime and use the money that way,” Cavaco said. “And make sure that everybody’s on the same page.”

Vanic said they don’t have enough people on the patrol roster to assign 100%, and he said overtime isn’t the cure.

“It would cost about $23 million, or over $23 million, to fund, assuming that the officers would be willing to fill the open positions,” Vanic said. “This is above our current expense and above our overtime spending.”

“Even one or two hours across all of the districts, all of the watches, that 1 hour will cost over $1 million in a year’s period,” Vanic said.

Whether spending everything and letting no funds lapse would be enough to stem the tide of the staffing crisis remains to be seen, with the number of officers on the payroll down about 150 from a peak in 2015.

At the same time, the volume of police actions from arrests to parking and traffic violations has plummeted.

Meanwhile, the interim chief said they’ve reviewed the staffing logs to make sure shifts are evenly staffed, and are looking at other ways to patch the holes

“Moving forward our administration will continue to monitor district rosters to ensure that proper staffing rosters are maintained,” Vanic said. “Also we plan to discuss 3 12s (12-hour days) at our meeting (with SHOPO) next week.”

Stolen jewels, boa constrictors killing owners, check out Weird News here

Vanic stated that they will also address, “different ways to supplement patrol staffing utilizing current resources. One example is our Specialized Services Division to see whether nor thot utilizing them in a patrol capacity might be advantageous.”