HPD spent millions in COVID-19 aid on four-wheelers, trucks and trailers

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Updated: Nov. 6, 2020 at 4:34 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu police spent millions in federal funds meant to bolster the city’s response to COVID-19 to purchase dozens of four-wheelers, trucks and trailers.

The department says the equipment was needed to respond to the crisis.

But the chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee called the spending “excessive” and questioned whether it shouldn’t instead have gone to help families and businesses in need.

Altogether, the city awarded the Honolulu Police Department $43 million in federal COVID-19 aid.

But records show less than $2 million of that was put towards personal protective equipment for officers. Another $2 million went to sanitation supplies, including hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes.

Meanwhile, the agency spent at least $16.5 million on overtime and other payroll expenses. That accounts for the largest spending category of the COVID-19 aid that went to the department.

In explaining its spending, HPD leadership notes that the pandemic has piled on a whole new set of responsibilities for Honolulu police.

From enforcing emergency rules to tracking down quarantine violators, every face-to-face interaction now poses additional risk.

And adapting to that new normal has been costly, officials said.

But in one eyebrow-raising purchase, the agency spent $625,000 to double its fleet of ATVs.

HPD says prior to the pandemic it had 38 ATVs, but only 26 were working. Now it has 40 more. That money also covered the cost of 18 utility vehicles and nine utility terrain vehicles.

John McCarthy, deputy chief in charge of HPD operations, defended the department’s spending and said all purchases were reviewed by a newly-created city Economic Revitalization Committee and government attorneys. The mayor had the final say.

“Everything has to be used for COVID. Anything we buy. No matter what it is,” McCarthy said.

“You need these vehicles,” said McCarthy. “A lot of them are specialty vehicles. The ATVs for example. We just didn’t have this.”

The deputy chief said the new vehicles have made officers more efficient conducting their duties. And he added they’re much more prepared to deal with COVID-19 emergencies.

“We get complaints about quarantine violations and mask violations, large gathering violations,” said McCarthy. “This is what’s serving them. Is that excessive?”

Federal authorities recently suggested agencies rent vehicles instead of buying them. When asked about that guidance, McCarthy replied, “The problem is we need police vehicles with radios, lights.”

Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Water, however, said the spending left him “speechless.”

The chair of the Council’s Public Safety committee said the body didn’t have any oversight on how the money was spent.

“I get emails from people every day asking for help and we learn that we’re spending money on ATVs,” said Waters. “When people are hurting, when people need help, it’s hard to justify that.”

In addition to the other vehicles, HPD also purchased a long list of other trucks and vans.

Combined with the four-wheelers, the total comes to 115 vehicles. Add to that 21 various trailers and the total cost for all of it was over $4 million.

For weeks, Hawaii News Now has asking department officials to see some of the new vehicles.

They never granted that request, but sources said many of the trucks could be found sitting at Keehi Lagoon. HNN did find some vehicles there matching the contract descriptions.

Now that COVID-19 case counts on Oahu have declined, McCarthy acknowledged the need isn’t as great for the 11 rapid response trucks that were purchased.

“Early on they were used quite a bit. When we first got it,” said McCarthy. “But the numbers have been coming down so they’re not used as often.”

Reviewing a line-item list of the department’s purchases, Waters asked, “Really, do we need all of these things?”

As businesses continue to close and tens of thousands of people remain unemployed, it’s a question that troubles the city councilman.

“When we have people who are home who are hungry. Who can’t pay their rent. Who can’t pay their mortgage. We need to do better getting it into the hands of the people who need it,” said Waters.

Ultimately that’s who the money’s for.”

HNN asked Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office to explain his reasoning for approving all 115 vehicles.

In a statement he said:

“During the pandemic, the Honolulu Police Department has been given the monumental task of enforcing COVID-19 regulations, including closures, physical distancing rules, and face covering mandates. The HPD has risen to this extraordinary challenge, and we thank the men and women of the Police Department for their hard work both enforcing the rules, and keeping people”

All federal CARES money received by the city had to be spent by the end of the year or returned.


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