Commission raises bar for the next police chief

KIHEI – In its search for a new Maui County police chief, the Maui Police Commission is setting requirements greater than those outlined for the job by the Maui County Charter.

“We’re raising the bar,” Chairman Roger Dixon said, as the commission voted on minimum requirements for applicants Wednesday during its meeting at the Kihei Police Station.

The commission also opened the door to out-of-state applicants, with a requirement that the new chief be a resident of Hawaii within 60 days of being appointed to the post.

The commission, which is charged with selecting the police chief, will be choosing a successor to Chief Gary Yabuta, who announced he will retire in July to move to Honolulu and become director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program in Hawaii.

Yabuta said that Hawaii is the only statewide region and its program is one of only 28 in the nation funded through the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Hawaii program has received $3.1 million per fiscal year.

“My job is to make sure this money we get in Hawaii is appropriated equally to state, federal and local law enforcement,” he said. “I’m not doing this for any other reason than my desire to do something for the entire state.”

Yabuta, a 31-year MPD veteran, began his career in 1983 as an undercover officer. He said his father and mother – “both prisoners in internment camps” – were there when Yabuta was appointed chief in 2009. “It was the greatest honor I ever achieved,” he said.

Before that, Yabuta was deputy for former Police Chief Tom Phillips. In turn, Phillips had been deputy for Chief Howard Tagomori, who had been the deputy for Chief Joseph Cravalho, Yabuta told commission members.

“I’m very proud that I’m the third generation of deputy chief to chief,” Yabuta said. “When I selected a deputy, my first question is I want to continue the tradition of deputy chief to chief. I wanted to carry the tradition that somebody in my department becomes my successor. Those were the things that were important to me.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m leaving because the department is in such good shape leaderwise.”

“I have a great deputy chief, Clayton Tom,” Yabuta said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to require that applicants for police chief have at least a college bachelor’s degree or be a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.

Yabuta said 12 to 20 current MPD officers have graduated from the intense 11-week leadership program. Officers have to be selected by their departments and pass physical fitness requirements to attend the academy, earning college credit, Yabuta said. “It’s probably the most important leadership class you get outside of experience,” he said. “It’s the epitome of law enforcement education.”

Yabuta said he has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and Phillips has a four-year college degree in economics. But other recent deputies and chiefs, as well as some current high-ranking MPD officers, have two-year associate degrees, which have been offered in criminal justice at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

By imposing the higher education requirements, Commissioner Michael Wilson said, “I’m wondering if we’re narrowing the scope” of applicants.

“Yes, we are – intentionally, to raise the bar,” Dixon said.

He said he wanted the commission to “build on” the entry-level requirements in the County Charter for the job that pays $135,000 a year.

The charter requires that the police chief have at least five years of law enforcement experience, including three years at the administrative level. But the commission voted to require at least 15 years’ experience in law enforcement, with at least five of those years being at the administrative level.

MPD business administrator Greg Takahashi said the county considers those working at the rank of police lieutenant or higher in the state to have reached the administrative level.

Applicants also must be U.S. citizens.

“We’re looking for the best qualified candidate,” Dixon said. “We’re looking for somebody at that executive level.”

Commissioners discussed the possibility of a five-year professional services contract for the next police chief, similar to the arrangement for the Honolulu police chief.

“I like that policy,” Yabuta said. “But you also have a great policy now. You don’t have to wait five years. You can say, ‘Chief Yabuta, it’s been a pleasure.’ “

Commissioner Gregg Lundberg said the police chief can be dismissed only if there’s good reason.

“The charter says you have to have cause,” Lundberg said. “I don’t think the charter makes it that easy.”

With questions about whether the commission can set a five-year term for the next chief and how it would be done, the issue remains open for further discussion, Dixon said.

Commissioners voted to keep the application period open for 45 days from the first date of publication of notices advertising the position. The commission voted to advertise for the police chief job in The Maui News and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, as well as online at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Maui County website, MPD Facebook page and

“We want to make sure we get all the exposure we can,” Dixon said.

The commission hasn’t set dates for accepting applications.

Commission Vice Chairman Kelly Ruidas is heading a police commission selection committee – an investigative group that will create an application form, handle reviewing and scoring of applications, and determine applicants to be interviewed by the full commission. The selection committee, which also includes commissioners Lundberg, Pancho Alcon and Howard Hanzawa, may do preliminary interviews of candidates by telephone or in person.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at