Tivoli Faaumu, first Tongan police chief in state, retires
His 36-year career included helping bring down fugitives and a Maui drug ring
WAILUKU — Whether it was handing out bottles of water while talking to Black Lives Matter protesters, walking in high heels to support survivors of domestic violence or tackling a fleeing fugitive, Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu left his mark.
“As the chief, I can’t just hide behind doors,” Faaumu said. “I have to go out. I have a civic duty.
“If there was a gap, learn to bridge that. If there was a wall, any barrier, learn to take it down.”
Faaumu, 61, retired today after a nearly 36-year career with the Maui Police Department, including nearly seven years as police chief.
“He’s fulfilled everything we asked him to do, plus much more,” said Roger Dixon, who was chairman of the Maui Police Commission that voted unanimously to select Faaumu as police chief in September 2014.
“The chief has made solid appointments in the department and is leaving a stronger, and more responsive police department,” Dixon said. “The framework is in place for future successes in tune with our changing times.”
Faaumu, who grew up in Tonga, joined the Maui Police Department on Aug. 5, 1985, becoming the department’s first Tongan police officer. He is also part Samoan.
He was the first Tongan police chief in the state.
“When I first came in, I was the only one with an accent,” said Faaumu, who left Tonga at age 17 to study business at Brigham Young University-Hawaii on Oahu. “Now you have different accents, which is good because the diversity of the department does match the community as a whole. It really helps us provide that service.”
Early on as chief, he faced the challenge of restoring public confidence in the department after criticism over the handling of investigations into the disappearances of Moreira “Mo” Monsalve and Carly “Charli” Scott.
In a media interview, Faaumu remembered being asked what he would do. “You rely on the expertise of detectives,” Faaumu said. “We have some outstanding individuals.”
A murder conviction followed for Scott’s ex-boyfriend Steven Capobianco, who is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole plus 10 years for murdering Scott and setting fire to her vehicle.
Police created a cyber crimes unit and worked with the FBI and prosecutor’s office to “connect the dots” to secure a second-degree murder indictment against Monsalve’s ex-boyfriend Bernard Brown in 2019, Faaumu said.
Another project, undertaken early in Faaumu’s term as chief, was the implementation of body-worn cameras for police officers.
While questions initially were raised by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers union, “the public outcry for accountability was there,” Faaumu said.
He estimated that use of the cameras, which began in 2017, has resulted in a 75 to 80 percent reduction in complaints about officers.
“As far as the return on our investment, it’s very, very successful,” Faaumu said.
In March, there were no public complaints about officers’ conduct, he said.
From the start, Faaumu was visible at community events.
He donned a pair of red high heels for a “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” fundraiser for Women Helping Women, joining men, including other police officers, on a march against domestic violence in Kaanapali.
Seeing the former semi-professional football player walking in high heels “drove home to a lot of people — he’s part of the community and a real human,” Dixon said.
“Policing for anybody in the profession is very challenging and can be difficult,” he said. “You’re working with such diverse groups in the community. You’re trying to pull people together and you’re always trying to do the right thing for the right reason.
“There are so many competing interests for chief. You have to wear so many different hats. And he succeeded. He’s going to be missed.”
Former Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim, who joined the prosecutor’s office the same year Faaumu joined MPD, said Faaumu was easy to work with.
“He understood our roles,” Kim said. “We were good friends. He was always an honorable guy.”
He brought to the job a military background, serving in the U.S. Army before he joined MPD and retiring as a master sergeant from the Army Reserve in 2014, after 31 years.
While working as a police officer over the years, Faaumu continued his education, earning an associate’s degree in administration of justice from then-Maui Community College, a bachelor’s degree in business management from Bellevue University and a master’s degree in homeland security from American Military University.
“He was always trying to make himself better and get ahead,” Kim said. “That goes a long way.
“If you were honest with him, he gave you a break. If you made a mistake and you owned up to it, he could forgive that.”
Deputy Chief Dean Rickard, who worked with Faaumu starting when they were Lahaina patrol officers in the late 1980s, said one of Faaumu’s strengths in leading MPD was “his eagerness to engage in open and honest communications with department personnel, government leaders and members of our community.”
“More important was his willingness to listen to the concerns brought forth by all stakeholders involved and his capacity to welcome this feedback as a means to explore all potential options available to him,” Rickard said. “Doing so allowed chief to make informed decisions as to what would be the most optimistic path forward and its progressive impact it will have on the community and the department.
“His educational credentials, training and work experience, and interpersonal skills has provided him with a greater understanding of today’s work environment and of the necessity to adapt to a continually evolving law enforcement landscape,” Rickard added.
Faaumu said the changes have included dealing with increasing numbers of homeless people, some with mental health issues.
Faaumu said there have been 25 success stories from the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which involves MPD’s Critical Outreach and Response unit working with other agencies to provide community-based services as an alternative to arresting people who are homeless.
In June, when Black Lives Matter protesters held signs along Kaahumanu Avenue near Hale Maka’i police headquarters in Wailuku, Faaumu went to talk to the sign-wavers about their concerns while handing out bottles of water.
Although his job was to be administrative head of the department of 323 police officers and 104 civilian employees, Faaumu stepped into a more traditional police role at times.
He was out for a jog in Kihei one morning in March 2015 when he saw a patrol officer chasing a man who was running toward the ocean near Kamaole Beach Park I. The chief joined in the chase, grabbing the fugitive and taking him to the ground.
Faaumu recalls many Halloweens he worked on Front Street in Lahaina, including in 2000 when he was a detective and responded to screams about a man trying to sexually assault an 8-year-old girl who had been grabbed from relatives in the crowd.
The suspect had jumped into the ocean when Faaumu, fellow Detective Jayson Rego and Lt. Lenie Lawrence got into a small motorboat with Atlantis Submarine employees to pursue the suspect.
“We jumped in and we went,” said Faaumu, who was dressed in full ballistic gear.
He was hoping the suspect, who was clinging to a buoy at the harbor entrance, wouldn’t take down the dinghy as the officers pulled him naked from the ocean.
“As we brought the individual back, the family was very, very upset,” Faaumu recalled. “They wanted to give him a piece of their mind.”
Faaumu was acting lieutenant in the Lahaina Criminal Investigation Division in 2004 when he found himself in the national limelight while detectives investigated the accidental death of an 18-year-old New Jersey high school cheerleader who fell naked from the ninth-floor balcony of a Kaanapali hotel.
The case drew interest from Geraldo Rivera and Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, as well as another network morning news show. Faaumu recalls being called by a show producer at midnight so he would be awake and wouldn’t sound sleepy when he was interviewed on air.
The time he most enjoyed in the department was his work as a vice narcotics officer, Faaumu said.
In 2001, he assisted the FBI in “Operation Awaroot,” which shut down a major crystal methamphetamine distribution ring responsible for 50 to 70 percent of the meth being sold on Maui at the time. His fluency in Tongan proved to be invaluable because many of the drug traffickers conversed in the Tongan language during wiretapped phone calls.
Faaumu was the district commander when two new police stations were opened — on Lanai in 2004 and in Kihei in 2013.
“Not in my wildest dreams” did he expect to one day be police chief, Faaumu said.
He was a captain meeting with community members about South Maui issues when someone said, “You should be our chief.”
At first, Faaumu was hesitant, believing in “the practice and traditions and the culture of the department” that included the usual transition of the deputy chief becoming chief.
He decided to apply for the job after talking with his family, knowing that his police career might be over if he wasn’t selected.
He said his selection over candidates of higher rank “opened the door” to a new route to becoming chief.
“You can achieve it, if you do your best and apply and work hard for it,” he said.
Faaumu had planned to retire July 1 of last year before Mayor Michael Victorino asked the chief to stay on in the pandemic, which required police to adapt to new rules and procedures.
“I say mahalo for that act of courage,” Victorino said Friday at the chief’s retirement ceremony at the Wailuku Police Station. “As a police officer, as a commander and as your chief, he’s shown the willingness to listen, to bring transparency to the Maui Police Department, to make it more public oriented and highly functional as a public agency.”
From the pandemic, police developed a citizens online reporting system allowing the public to submit nonemergency reports immediately and print copies of the reports. Between Oct. 15 and April 14, 266 reports were generated through the system. Sixty-four of the reports were rejected.
“For me, it’s time to step to the side and move on,” Faaumu said last month. “I feel the department is in good hands because there’s a vaccine.”
Speaking at his retirement ceremony, Faaumu said “the chief is not supposed to have emotions, he’s supposed to get it together and drive on.”
“But I think after 35 years, incredible years, and then six and a half years as your chief, I’m eternally grateful for the law enforcement career I have, especially having the opportunity to serve as your chief,” he said. “I have enjoyed every moment of it.”
While Maui will always be home, Faaumu and his wife, Deborah, also plan to spend time in Arizona with his in-laws.
Rickard, who takes over as acting chief, said he will miss most “the camaraderie that comes with working with someone for 34-plus years.”
“Time sure flies and it’s hard to believe how far we both have come since patrolling the Lahaina District in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Rickard said. “But it’s not all surprising to see how chief’s career has shaped his rise to the top law enforcement position in Maui County. In that time while rising through the ranks, chief has always been a highly motivated and intelligent person with a genuine and insightful approach to dealing with people and organizations.
“I would like to personally congratulate him on a well-deserved retirement, and I appreciate his years of dedicated service and contributions to this department and our community. I also want to thank him for his support, leadership and friendship throughout all these years, which has been an influence on my career as well.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.