MPD Chief Pelletier: “Not just on the 8th, but each day since… we have countless heroes”
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier discussed the department’s response to the devastating wildfire in Lahaina on Aug. 8 that left a burn scar covering 2,170 acres, destroyed more than 2,200 structures in its path, and claimed at least 115 lives.
Maui Now’s Wendy Osher asked the chief about communications, conditions on the ground, the list of unaccounted for individuals, the human aspect of what the department faced and the path that officers continue to navigate in what has been described as the nation’s deadliest wildfire in 100 years.
“I think that MPD… other first responders and this community is the most resilient community I’ve ever heard of, experienced, been a part of,” said Maui Police Chief John Pelletier on Friday morning.
“What they’re doing with what they have is unprecedented, and the fact that we have other partners coming in, and saying how can we help, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and be with us in our most critical time… realize we have people that haven’t even entered the grieving phase. They haven’t even had that chance,” he said.
Chief Pelletier said amidst the devastation, the department continues to handle calls for service.
“We still go out and have to make sure that we’re fighting crime and making sure that we’re doing our duty in addition to all these other things, and we haven’t stopped,” said Pelletier who reflected upon last 24 days and navigating the path forward.
Q: Going back to that day on Aug. 8, was there constant communication with the Emergency Operating Center about what police were seeing and experiencing on the ground?
“Our radios worked that night. Our radios did not fail. And so, we had constant radio communication that night. We had law enforcement—MPD representatives—in the EOC from earlier that day, I believe from the very early hours, approximately 4 a.m. on the 8th when the partial activation started, we had MPD representation there,” said Chief Pelletier.
Q: At any point did the pace of the fire out run the department’s ability to maintain order amid the chaos? At any point did police have to flee to save their own lives like firefighters had done?
“I think the pace of that fire outran anyone’s expectation alive, that has ever thought what a fire could do or what a wildfire could do. How many fires has the state or the county had that we’re aware of, I don’t even know. I can’t even imagine that. But nobody expected this. I think when you add in three fires and 80 mph winds, and all the things that we know we talk about. So I don’t think you could say anybody could have expected in any way the speed and the destructive force that this was. I’ve said before, ‘Man vs. nature, nature always wins,'” said Chief Pelletier.
“I know I had guys that, they were very concerned that they were not coming home that night. I know that there are people that they thought that they were trapped. They were pinned in because of the utility poles that were down on the ground… And you can’t just drive over those. And so, as the fire is coming in and the heat’s coming in, you know we have just begun to begin the process of our after-action. But realize, it’s an after-action and we’re very much in the action of our identifications and notifications as well as our other police functions that we do.”
“I would tell you that I do know the story about the firefighters using the police vehicle in order to get them out. I do know the story of our officers going up and down the streets with the sirens and knocking on doors. I do know that I have an officer that came and went into The Coffee Bean and actually got people who were sheltered in place—and had that officer not done that, they would have died.”
“Those are the things that I’m aware of. I’m also aware of an officer that was blocking traffic going into the affected area of Lahaina from the bypass, and making sure that people didn’t go into harm’s way. He was looking down, and his house is off Lahainaluna, and he could not reach his family. He looked at all the obstacles on Lahainaluna, knowing nobody could go that way because it was impossible to pass from what he saw… Here’s a guy that manned his post, not even knowing if his own family was alive.”
“So when we criticize, and we sit there and we talk about what people could have, should have, would have done, that’s not what we need to do. What we need to do is we need to make sure that we’re doing everything to protect our community right now, because our community still very much needs all the help, all the support, and all the love that everyone can provide. When we have outside forces that aren’t a part of this area that are preying on our people, that’s wrong. Our people—not just MPD, not just MFD, not just our doctors—our people are heroes, and God bless them,” said Chief Pelletier.
Q: Moving into the investigative aspect of the incident, earlier this week you mentioned the planned release of a new “credible list” of unaccounted for individuals. Can you share any details about this document and the progress made toward narrowing the list?
“Every week the FBI will be putting out a ‘credible list.’ It’s very simple criteria right now, which is a first and last name, and a human source that provided it. That’s very broad. We’re going to need to start narrowing that down,” said Chief Pelletier.
“What we’re going to do is add this week, the ones that are also the MPD missing persons reports into that list, so we make sure that we have everything in that ‘credible report’ that we know are credible unaccounted for,” he said.
“The desire will be, if you know somebody on that list that is safe, please contact the FBI. They’re actually standing up a complete phone bank with analysts dedicated directly to this. I know they cleared off several from the 388 last week, but we’re going to be adding names onto it this week from the different sources,” according to the chief.
Additional questions asked during the interview include:
Q: Is there any kind of reverse tallies taking place by looking into for example, the students who have not enrolled yet for school and back checking to see if they are accounted for?
“We’re looking really at every list, but yes, we are. We’re also looking at lists for people who didn’t show up for work. I know we’re going to be making some notifications based on that as this progresses,” said Chief Pelletier.
“I can tell you this: the FBI has cleared, found or identified to be alive well over 3,000 people,” he said. “We had to build that process, and the process didn’t exist before.”
Q: Can you provide greater clarity on how many remains were recovered from the Front Street or waterfront area, Does this make up a majority of the remains found?
“We have GPS coordinates and locations for where everybody has been found, but this is still ongoing and I have a whole bunch of folks right now that have not been notified. So for me to put that map up and say this is where we found them, would cause a lot of grief and a lot of hurt right now because we have not yet even been able to identify some of these folks,” the chief said.
“Just because someone might have been found… in or around a house, doesn’t mean it was their house. They might have run into it. And so it would be very premature and unethical for me right now at this point, while we’re still doing the investigations to say exactly where everybody was in fact found,” said Chief Pelletier.
According to the chief, the family members who have been notified, are told where their loved ones have been found.
“When it’s all done, in the after-action it’s there, we will plot where everybody was recovered, but that’ll be when it’s concluded and it’s appropriate to do so,” he said.
Q: What is the process for declaring someone as “presumed deceased” and will this number out pace the individuals whose remains were found.
“It’s a fair question. It’s a very premature question. We’ve had those conversations, but in order to get that, we have to do everything we can to figure out what we’re in fact dealing with as far as the number of remains that we have,” said Chief Pelletier.
According to the chief, the missing persons reports are important because they provide proper documentation in moving toward this point.
“I’ve been speaking with folks from around the country particularly the Sheriff that was in charge of the Camp Fire. They had 1,300 that were missing, and they had in the 80s the number that would be deceased,” according to the chief, who said the process will takes time.
“Before we have the discussions where we’re actually doing the presumptions, we’ve got a lot of work still to do… as far as the folks we have recovered and getting the information on those missing persons reports,” said Chief Pelletier.
He made a plea to individuals with loved ones who remain unaccounted for, to provide DNA swabs, saying it could provide closure. “We’ve got DNA on the people that we’ve recovered. We need the DNA of their loved ones,” he said.
Q: Is this now solely up to the FBI now? Or is the department actively working on any of these cases, or getting help from someone else?
According to the chief, the investigative component is made of the MINT or the Morgue Identification Notification Task Force, which is made up of personnel from the Maui Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Honolulu Police Department as well as federal military and law enforcement components.
“MPD is the lead on the missing persons component. The FBI is the lead on using the analytics for the list, because right now it has exceeded MPD’s bandwidth,” said Chief Pelletier, who made the request for assistance. He noted that the FBI has 15 dedicated analysts just to take the calls for this portion of the investigation.
Q: For the Return to Lahaina Phase, is there a map of which zones will be cleared first, and in what order residents will be able to check on their properties. How long will they be granted access?
According to the chief, it is the County of Maui that is putting together the reentry plan. As the lead for public safety and law enforcement, the department may help with the perimeter and security component.
Maui Deputy Managing Director, Josiah Nishita, is reportedly the lead for the county on this project, as it establishes zones and mapping for reentry.
Q: Information in the first hours and days of the event came much slower to surface than many had hoped, Some say that created space for rumors and false information. Anything that needs to be addressed to set the record straight?
“In a vacuum, when there’s nothing gong on, there’s people that want to add to that noise, or add to that narrative. There’s a lot of false narrative, and that needs to stop,” said Chief Pelletier.
“Because of false media, we have folks trying to spin some narratives that cops were either not doing everything they could… but our officers, think about it this way, they are victims too,” said the chief. “They lost their loved ones. I’ve got a cop working… and I know for a fact he lost his family members. He lost his home. And so, while he’s out there working, you think he’s not doing everything he can to save his family?”
“If you don’t know the story… don’t spin something you don’t know,” said Chief Pelletier. “The after-action will come out. It will show what people did. What needs to take place is people need to really stop… Don’t be a keyboard coward and sit there and just type in hate and false narratives. Go serve. Go help somebody. There’s so many things that our people need right now. Go champion those causes,” he said.
“We’ve got people right now just struggling to get on, and they haven’t even had a moment to grieve. We have people that haven’t even stopped working since this has started, and they’ve lost loved ones,” said Chief Pelletier.
“There’s a lot of great stories out there. There’s a tremendous ability to talk about the spirit of the people of Maui and the people of Hawai’i,” he said.
Q: As first responders being tasked with the mission of serving and protecting, as well as preserving life, do you feel the department carried this out?
“Looking back now and knowing what I know, I can tell you that without a doubt, MPD both sworn and unsworn, the men and women of this department, and other first responders acted in the most admirable, professional way possible, period. They are heroes. They saved lives. Our people saved lives that day. They protected the community to the best of their ability. They stood in harms’ way knowing their own loved ones were in danger, and they were doing everything they can to evac[uated] people out,” said Chief Pelletier. “There is nothing more that they could have done.
“We have countless heroes in this community. We also have folks that I’ve heard—there were kids on motorcycles zipping up and down, trying to get people to flee their houses. Let’s not discount folks that acted heroically that normally don’t. I would say this: Not just on the 8th, but each day since, we’ve had people out of their comfort zones and they’re unsung heroes,” he said.
“I could not be more proud of the men and women of this department than I am. We have folks in this community and in this department that unfortunately have now experienced the worst natural disaster, as far as wildfire, anybody alive in this nation has ever seen. The experience in what they have and what they are going through is second to none. MPD, unfortunately will have to lead and give back as other agencies experience these things too,” he said.
“But I’ll tell you this, protect and serve, they did. Admirably. And they are undoubtedly some of the finest first responders in this nation and the world,” said Chief Pelletier.
Q: Anything further that you’d like to share that I didn’t ask?
“I think that the public and the community that we’re privileged to serve, the support and love that they have shown this agency… the support and love that they have shown this community—it’s overwhelming. It’s humbling. We are absolutely blessed. I’m in awe of how much they have poured their aloha into us… And the men and women of this department are absolute heroes.”