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Maui police plan for isle homeless aims to divert instead of arrest

Pilot is modeled after successful Seattle program

Shopping carts filled with sleeping gear and other belongings are parked next to a Kamehameha Avenue bus stop Friday morning in Kahului. The police started a pilot program in Kahului on May 1 that focuses on diverting homeless people from jail into voluntary treatment.

WAILUKU — A new Maui Police Department pilot program approaches homeless and mentally ill people in a proactive — instead of reactive — manner.

Launched May 1, the program deploys trained police officers, along with mental health and social workers, into vulnerable Kahului communities with the aim of diverting low-level offenders into voluntary treatment and services instead of jail.

LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is modeled after the Seattle Police Department’s successful program, developed in 2011, that eventually spread to 33 states.

“We try to coach them along and say, ‘You can do this; let’s try this,’ ” said Maui police Sgt. Jan Pontanilla, who is spearheading the local program. “We are not forcing them to participate, but it’s something to help them go through the process. Maybe they need medication, maybe they need insurance . . . we are here to help them along.”

Pontanilla explained at a Police Commission meeting May 22 that the diversion program works to build trust with homeless and mentally ill individuals who are often skeptical about assistance.

Shopping carts filled with sleeping gear and other belongings are parked next to a Kamehameha Avenue bus stop Friday morning in Kahului. The police started a pilot program in Kahului on May 1 that focuses on diverting homeless people from jail into voluntary treatment.

“It’s hard because we have to build rapport,” she said. “They don’t always trust police; they don’t always trust any individual who’s trying to help. And, they are not used to getting help.”

Pontanilla, along with a mental health partner, heads out weekly for diversion program activities, which include calls for service, intended response and coordinated outreach.

Calls for service mean intercepting nonviolent calls for resources related to homeless people.

Intended response involves the officer identifying, based on MPD tips, homeless individuals who have had multiple contacts with police. The officer then reaches out to establish a relationship and offer services.

If it’s a coordinated outreach, “the hui,” or group of partners, including Mental Health Kokua, Aloha House and Ka Hale A Ke Ola, plan a joint intervention.

The diversion program helps cut time that patrol officers spend on the scene of mental illness and homeless people-related calls, Pontanilla added.

So far, the diversion program is working with 12 people in the Central Maui area. One person got a bed at Mental Health Kokua, she said.

“She’s doing really well,” Pontanilla said, adding that two others are close to voluntary help. “It takes time.”

Maui’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion plan falls under the umbrella of CORE, or Critical Outreach and Response through Education. The Maui Police Department’s CORE also includes an active shooter awareness program (EPIC, or Emergency Preparedness Increasing our Community Awareness) and a mental health and substance abuse program (CIT, or Crisis Intervention Team, and MHEW, or Mental Health Emergency Worker).

“What we’re trying to do with the CORE program is to stop that cycle of arrest and rearrest by providing them services instead,” said Maui police intelligence research analyst Merry Greer Prince.

The pilot program will focus on Kahului and last one year, but there are funding hurdles. The federal government has awarded the county $625,000 to partially fund five CORE police positions, but the positions were not approved in the last two county budget cycles. The CORE jobs are in the current mayoral and County Council budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but if they get cut, the federal grant expires this year and can’t be tapped, Prince said. Also, community partners have funding for the services they provide.

“This year was our final opportunity to present it one more time,” police Chief Tivoli Faaumu said at the commission meeting. “If they deny to accept our funding, then we have to return it back to federal government.”

Kahului was chosen as the starting point for the diversion program because the majority of homeless incidents and arrests are in Central Maui, police said. The pilot program will assess what works and hopefully spread throughout the island and the county.

Last year in Maui County, there were 7,931 incidents and 2,871 arrests involving homeless people, according to police data. From Jan. 1 to May 1, there were 2,592 incidents and 920 arrests.

Looking at numbers from a different perspective, 9,451 incidents involving homeless people resulted in 12,736 charges; 3,441 incidents led to arrest; 59 people were arrested 10 or more times; and 170 people were arrested five or more times, according to police data from Jan. 1, 2018, to March 12.

Homeless people incidents by area in 2018 include 46 percent for Central Maui; Lahaina, 24 percent; Kihei, 18 percent; Upcountry, 8 percent; Molokai, 4 percent; Lanai, 0 percent, the report said.

In Central Maui, the top 2018 homeless people incidents by type were warrants at 48 percent; drug offenses, 11 percent; abuse, 10 percent; trespassing, 9 percent; theft, 8 percent; disorderly conduct, 7 percent; harassment, 4 percent; and assault, 3 percent, according to the presentation.

Prince discussed national statistics, which show that a ratio of 1 in 5 people suffers from mental illness and 2 of 3 homeless people across the U.S. deal with some kind of mental illness or substance misuse. Due to few resources, the largest providers of mental health services are prisons and jails.

“They have more mentally ill persons locked up than they do facilities that can provide care,” Prince said.

At Maui Community Correctional Center, 400 people on average are in custody, according to Prince. Of that population, 20 percent has “some kind of mental illness,” she said. “There is actually more than that; that’s just what they diagnose.”

“Half of the people that we hold in our facility downstairs are probably suffering from some type of mental illness,” Prince added.

With funding and collaboration, Maui police said, they hope the program extends beyond its pilot phase.

“What we would like to do is also work with the courts, eventually have a community court, a homeless court. And even after arrest, we could still divert through that court to services,” Prince said. “We want to develop it and make it bigger. Right now, we only have Jan (Pontanilla).”

At the end of the meeting, county Prosecutor Don Guzman said he backs the new LEAD program and the much-needed resources that CORE offers.

“This is just another step in the right direction,” Guzman said. “I’ve committed to the chief as well as the commission that the prosecutor’s office will support this program and do whatever we can to complement it.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.