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Community Perspectives on Policing


 With funding from the Hawai'i Council for the HumanitiesEast Hawai'i Cultural Center (EHCC) initiated a collaborative research study with the University of Hawai'i at Hilo Department of Sociology in 2023 to investigate current and historical perspectives on policing and incarceration in East Hawai'i. Students enrolled in a criminology course carried out this research by creating a survey-interview instrument, interviewing 250 local community members, analyzing data, and creating the study materials found here. Findings were also shared at the May 20, 2023 Community & Policing panel event, hosted by EHCC. 

This activity was 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 this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Context of the Study

Known for its gallery exhibitions, art education, and performing arts programming, East Hawai’i Cultural Center (EHCC) initiated a study and began planning for a community discussion panel on community perspectives on policing in the fall of 2022. This may seem like an unusual project for a cultural center, but it was an initiative rooted in the fact that EHCC facilities once served as the regional police station, jail, and courthouse from 1932 to 1975. As well as one also bolstered by the organization’s philosophy: that museums and cultural institutions must acknowledge the difficult untold stories from the past, rather than solely focus on romanticized tales.

The latter acknowledges that within the walls of EHCC’s building, numerous experiences have played out throughout the years. Some were joyful, such as a proud student obtaining their first driver's license or a son following in their father's footsteps to join the police force. Other events were more mundane, such as citizens paying speeding tickets or officers directing traffic during road repairs. Unfortunately, there were also tragic moments, including family court rulings tearing families apart, instances of wrongful judgment resulting in lengthy incarcerations, and the repeated retelling of stories by traumatized victims.

So, EHCC partnered with University of Hawai’i at Hilo to dig into these stories using a broad survey of community members in the eastern region of Hawai’i Island—the area the previous police station once served. The survey gathered recollections and current perceptions of the criminal justice system, teased apart people’s confidence in the fairness of policing, and examined sentiments regarding if and how the Hawai’i Police Department aligns with the community's best interests.


Why does this study matter?

Recognizing and sharing everyone's stories— even the difficult ones— contributes to a shared sense of justice, history, and humanity. Understanding the past informs the present and guides us towards a better future. For EHCC, this means utilizing their history as a police station and courthouse as a springboard, and providing local students the opportunity to do hands-on research into these stories. Further, using EHCC resources, this project aimed (and continues to aim) to foster a communal understanding of the role and impact of policing and to provide a space for conversations on the next paths forward for the East Hawai’i community.

The findings shared on this website and at the May 20, 2023 panel event are the first steps towards EHCC’s long-term goal of seeking out and sharing these authentic, revealing stories in their proper context and exploring how community-police relations have evolved since the 1930s and 1970s. The hope is to shed light on the present state of these relations, providing insights for future directions.

We end with an insightful quote from EHCC Executive Director Carol Walker from the May 20, 2023 “Community and Policing” event that we hope you keep in mind: 

“You may have noticed that the title of this event is 'Community & Policing,' not 'Community & Police.' That was a deliberate choice of language, because 'Community & Police' sounds like these are two separate entities. They are not. The police themselves are as much a part of the community as are those who never have any reason to think about policing. Those who are victimized by crime are part of the community. [And] those who are justice-involved individuals making their way back into society are part of the community.”

UH Hilo criminology students interviewed Carol Walker, Executive Director of the East Hawai'i Cultural Center (EHCC) about the history of the Center, as well as impetus for the study. Learn more by watching this video and by going to EHCC's website.

Research Methods

Research Methods

Using survey-interviews (in person, over the phone, and through email), UH Hilo students collected data from 250 members of the East Hawai'i community. These members were diverse in age, race/ethnicity, and income level, and provided insightful answers to close- and open-ended questions.


Digital Brochure

Click on the images to access PDF documents that summarize the study.

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         KEY FINDINGS &

Key Findings Regarding Feelings of Safety


  • Over two-thirds of respondents (69%) reported feeling safe or very safe while out in the East Hawai’i community alone during the day. This sense of safety dropped to roughly one-third (36%) while out alone at night.

    • Compared to men, women feel less safe during the day and night. This gendered difference is increases at night time: while 53% of men report feeling safe or very safe, only 20% of women feel this security.

  • When asked what East Hawai’i’s greatest safety issue is, respondents point to
    (1) drugs, (2) property crime, and (3) a lack of police presence as the primary issues.



Key Findings Regarding Perceptions of the Police


  • When asked to describe how police generally behave in East Hawai’i, over half (56%) state that the Hawai’i Police Department is “polite,” “friendly,” and “professional.” However, over one-fifth (21%) describe HPD in negative terms, such as “rude,” “authoritarian,” and “corrupt.” 


  • Roughly half of surveyed individuals (49%) do not believe that the Hawai’i Police Department treats all people fairly.

    • Women (55%) are more likely than men (43%) to believe that HPD treats people unfairly.


  • Despite this, four out of five people (80%) feel comfortable contacting the police to report a crime.

    • Additionally, of those who reported having interactions with HPD in the
      past 5 years (roughly 150 people), over three-quarters (78%) note that their interactions were fair and equitable. 

      • Qualitative findings show that these contradictions could be due to the influence of anecdotal stories from others in the community and news reports regarding police injustice that shape general negative perceptions. 


  • Only one in three people (28%) believe that the Hawai’i Police Department makes efforts to develop relationships with the community. 

    • Thus, a common recommendation for improvement of HPD was for the Department to do more community engagement and develop connections.


  • Only one out of three respondents (32%) feel that the Hawai’i Police Department currently has a positive relationship with the community. This is significantly lower than past perceptions. When recollecting about the relationship between the police and the community between 1930 and 1970, 73% of respondents described it as positive.

    • Individuals also noted that in the past there was a greater confidence (71%) in police officers to act in the best interests of the public compared with today (53%).


  • Over half of respondents (58%) have interacted with police in the past 5 years.

    • Most of these interactions were unrelated to serious criminal activity.

    • Men (66%) are more likely than women (51%) to experience interactions with police.

    • Younger people, aged 18-30, (63%) are more likely to interacts with HPD compared to older age groups.


  • Roughly two out of three people (61%) feel there are not enough police officers in the East Hawai’i region.

    • This perception of understaffing is associated with experiencing long response times in moments of need.


  • Almost half of respondents (48%) report being satisfied or very satisfied with police services in East Hawai’i.

    • Neither gender nor age have a significant impact on reported satisfaction.


Key Findings Regarding Incarceration


  • One out of five individuals (19%) report being impacted by incarceration directly or within their family.

    • This is significantly lower than the national rate of one in two adults (50%) being impacted by incarceration, a statistic found by researchers at Cornell University and in 2018.​


Key Findings Regarding Improvements


  • When asked how the Hawai’i Police Department could improve, almost one-third of respondents (29%) recommend that HPD should increase staffing with qualified personnel. Several believe that doing so would decrease response time to community calls. 

  • About one in five (18%) suggest providing “better” training, particularly on building more empathetic connections with the community. 

  • And roughly one in five (18%) urge HPD to do more “friendly” community engagement to show they are involved with and listening to the people of East Hawai’i.

"Poverty and the things that relate to it, like drugs and crime [are safety issues]... We never recovered from the sugar economy. The poverty has grown because of tourism and nobody can afford the other islands."

"[HPD is] generally respectful [and] helpful, but they are really understaffed."

"[Cops act] like they are better than everyone." 

"There is a certain perspective and approach of where [police] choose to want to go and help. If it is a specific community they act different and give it more time than others."

"[HPD is] fine. Not very community oriented, but they do their job."

"I think the average citizen is treated fairly by the police officers. But I think the community is still small enough that the officers remember and recognize those they have greater-than-average encounters with. I think those individuals are treated 'differently'."

"My [child] was arrested and convicted. It was challenging trying to help [them], but feeling like I couldn't. I put my car up to help cover the bail. [They] ended up serving time because [they] violated probation. There were too many requirements [they] couldn't fulfill, like going to anger management classes, visiting the probation office, attending domestic violence classes, and not having a suspended license to drive made it worse."

"The police department should play a big role in bringing the community together. I know that it's only their job to 'protect the community,' but there are other ways of doing so by helping the people come together."

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© 2023 by UH Hilo Criminology Students

East Hawaii Policing Study

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