Tuesday, October 13, 2015         


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Sheriff Division effective under duress

By James L. Propotnick


I must respond and provide clarification to a recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser article regarding the lack of court security in Kona courtrooms ("Big Island courthouse closures begin Oct. 1," Aug. 12).

It's disturbing to hear strident rhetoric from certain people, who don't have all the facts, stating that the public and the courts are at risk because of the Sheriff Division. This is simply not true.

The Sheriff Division acknowledges a shortage of deputy sheriffs, but here's the accurate background:

The lieutenant of the Big Island Sheriff Division, with full support of the state Department of Public Safety, made a decision to staff the security perimeters of Big Island courthouses with more than one deputy, as opposed to the single deputy as had been the case for many years.

We realized in order to ensure safety and not shortchange the public in providing an effective law enforcement presence, changes had to be made because of an incident that occurred outside a Kailua-Kona Family Courthouse where a fight between two opposing families erupted, and only one deputy sheriff was on duty.

It should be noted that the lone deputy intervened in the confrontation and suffered injuries, but ultimately handled the situation, along with much-appreciated help from the Hawaii County Police Department.

In the past, the Sheriff Division had always staffed Big Island courts with as many deputies as were available. Over the years, the number of courts and judges increased, but the staffing of the Sheriff Division did not keep pace. Additional staffing has always been a priority of the sheriffs, but our requests for more bodies were never filled to requested levels. Gradually over the years, we ended up becoming understaffed in relation to court needs and we began the practice of staffing courthouses with one deputy.

This is no longer the case. One deputy cannot provide needed security to the judges and the public at large, or themselves. Our staff reassignments have prompted the Judiciary to restructure court times and consolidate courthouses.

However, the Sheriff Division management has always tried to work with the Judiciary and has often pointed out that under "Hawaii Revised Statutes 606-14 Bailiffs," the judges may appoint a person to be known as the "court officer" or "bailiff" or "special court officer," and in the performance of their bailiff duties, "they shall have the general powers of a police officers including all of the authority, powers, and duties as set forth in Chapter 803."

This means bailiffs can be armed and provide security in the courtrooms. The Sheriff Division has also offered to train and certify all court-appointed bailiffs in the use of firearms.

We have yet to be taken up on our offer.

It must be noted that it's not the duty of the Sheriff Division to provide a deputy sheriff in each and every courtroom. Deputies perform perimeter enforcement presence and respond to dangerous situations in courtrooms as they arise. Upcoming hearings and trials are analyzed to make the necessary security staffing decisions based on the potential for violence or problems.

Therefore, the Sheriff Division is performing its duties despite the posturing by some people who use inflammatory language to point out problems without taking into account all sides.

There isn't a deputy sheriff on every corner, nor is there a police officer on every block. If a lawyer is afraid for his or her safety, he or she should make the fears known to the court, and the court can utilize courtroom bailiffs as an escort, or alert the sheriffs beforehand.

Our deputy sheriffs are doing the best they can with the available resources. They are committed to providing safety to the courthouses, the general public and all of our staff.

James L. Propotnick is deputy director for law enforcement in the state Department of Public Safety.

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