UH Hilo sociologist Ellen Meiser, whose criminology class conducted the research, says the students’ study provides the police department with recommendations directly from the community on how make some productive changes.
By Susan Enright.
Students at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo taking a sociology class on criminology carried out a research project during the spring semester, “Community Perspectives on Policing,” to investigate current and historical perspectives on policing and incarceration in East Hawai‘i. Students Kelly “Amy” Black, Caitlin Peil, Rosenet Timius, and Jake Villa produced the project.
The students created a survey instrument, carried out in-person interviews with 250 longtime residents, analyzed data, and created several products including a website, digital infographics, a video, and a community presentation. Each student was given a stipend of $174 for their efforts.
The project was initiated by the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center (EHCC) and the student researchers were sociology and administration of justice majors. The findings were presented in a recent community forum with Mayor Mitch Roth and new Chief of Police Ben Moszkowicz attending.
The class, taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology Ellen Meiser, is broken up into two parts. Student spend the first half of the semester learning about theories of crime (i.e., what are the social forces that influence people to commit crimes), and the second half is spent being introduced to the players of the criminal justice system (i.e., the police, offender, victim, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges).
“The goal is for students to better understand the roles of crime and the criminal justice system in our society,” says Meiser.
About the Hawai‘i policing study, Meiser says she was lucky enough to be approached by UH Hilo Professor of History Kerri Inglis early last fall about carrying out a student-led research project for the EHCC that would be funded in part by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities. Professor Inglis knew Meiser was set to teach the sociology criminology course (SOC324), and asked if she’d be interested.
“For context,” Meiser explains, “before EHCC took over their Kalakaua Street building, it used to house the old police station and courthouse from the late 1930s to 1970s. And so, EHCC was interested in learning more about this past and wanted to utilize UH Hilo students to do so.”
The building that now houses the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center was built in the 1930s, housing the police station and courthouse. In February 1969 the court was moved to a new state office building, and in 1975 the police department moved to a larger building, leaving the Kalakaua Street building vacant. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 4, 1979, and was granted to the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center in 1980.
Community Perspectives on Policing project
The goal of the “Community Perspectives and Policing” project was to assess how people in the East Hawai‘i region currently feel about the police, and then compare—if possible—those perceptions with how people felt about the police during the era of the old Hawai‘i Police Department (HPD) office being located on Kalakaua Street.
Meiser says the students launched the study first by conducting background research about crime, policing, and the criminal justice system here on Hawai‘i Island, so they had a foundation.
Then they had a Q&A session with Carol Walker, executive director of East Hawai‘i Cultural Center, “to pick her brain about the direction of the project,” says Meiser. Later on, the students re-interviewed Walker to produce a study video, seen here:
During the interview with Walker, the executive director talks about how, in a movement found throughout the U.S., museums and related institutions are taking a step back to explore the full story of their locations without glossing over culturally and historically sensitive issues. This includes different groups within the community whose histories have been slighted.
“And that applies to our organization because we are in the old police station and courthouse,” she explains. Walker says while many hold a romantic view of the building — for example, someone might say, “That’s where I got my driver’s license!” — the fact is that “historically, before our building was built in 1938, the history leading into it was that this western justice system was imposed on a local community.
“I’m sure it was disruptive,” she adds.
With this rich history, EHCC was interested in understanding the impacts of policing in East Hawai‘i, as well as how the local community feels toward law enforcement. This is why Walker contacted UH Hilo faculty to initiate a study on the topic.
When the Walker interview was completed and analyzed, the students then created a survey, and carried out 250 survey interviews with longtime residents of the East Hawai‘i region. (The average length of time survey respondents had lived in the area was 31.46 years.) They then analyzed the data, and created various products to share their key findings with the community: a video, website digital brochure, and panel presentation.
The survey covered several areas, including how the public feels about safety on the streets, public perceptions of the police, and about how people are impacted by incarceration directly or within their family.
Meiser says the study found two key items: first, that compared with perceptions from the past (1930-1970), the East Hawai‘i community currently is far less satisfied with the Hawai‘i Police Department, and sees the force as less fair.
“But, contradictorily, and second, these attitudes were not based in community members’ actual experiences with HPD,” explains Meiser. “In fact, most people who had interactions with HPD over the past five years found those experiences to be just and equitable; these folks also described HPD officers in largely positive terms. This contradiction, we argue, is likely due to national anti-police sentiment and local anecdotes about bad-apple officers.”
The full report on the findings of the students’ study can be found on their Community Perspectives on Policing website.
This past weekend, the students shared their findings at a “Community and Policing” forum May 20, hosted by the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center. The event started with four UH Hilo students from the criminology class presenting the findings of their class’s survey followed by a Q&A. “They did quite well,” says Meiser.
The student’s report was followed by an expert panel of distinguished community leaders including the new police chief, a Hawaiian law historian, restorative justice scholars, and local community leaders. On the panel was Amanda Alvarado, restorative justice project coordinator, Hawai‘i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney; Kevin Dayton, senior reporter with Honolulu Civil Beat; Les Estrella, president and CEO, Going Home Hawai‘i; Michelle Manalo, director of finance, Going Home Hawai‘i; Iopa Maunakea, founder of Men of Pa‘a and executive director of Kanaka O Puna; Ben Moszkowicz, chief of the Hawai‘i Police Department; and Elroy Osorio Jr, retired member of the HPD (1971-2006). Mayor Mitch Roth was in the audience.
“The panel exposed new and on-going criminal justice issues to community members through a variety of voices,” explains Meiser. “Topics included staffing issues at HPD, the strength of ‘āina-based programs for justice-involved people, and how the Hilo community’s attitudes towards police and the courts have shifted over the past several decades. During the Q&A, attendees sought out ways to improve the system and right some of the ongoing wrongs. And hopefully some of these attendees will carry out change.”
Meiser says the students’ study provides HPD with recommendations directly from the community on how to improve these attitudes.
“We’ve shared [the recommendations] with HPD and their police chief directly,” she says. “Hopefully, they will deeply consider what the community recommends and make some productive changes.”
Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.