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Audit thrashes Sheriff Division

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Lax management and equipment problems have created a state Sheriff Division that could jeopardize public safety, a scathing audit concludes.

"Poor leadership has led to a division that may be a risk to the public it is supposed to protect," said Legislative Auditor Marion Higa’s report, which listed problems ranging from a lack of training for the deputy sheriffs to a lack of guidance from the state Department of Public Safety.

The DPS division has been assigned a range of duties, but because of "ineffective leadership" at the departmental level, the law enforcement agency "lacks guidance and direction," the auditor said in the report released last month.

Clayton Frank, director of the Department of Public Safety, admitted

"deficiencies" and said officials have been working to address them, but said the conclusion about public risk is "an overstatement of the day-to-day reality."

State Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, called the audit "eye-opening" last week and said it underscored what he has heard before.

"I’ve heard complaints and concerns from deputy sheriffs, and one concern they’ve had is they feel they are the stepchild of the department," Espero said.

Following the retirement in February of Sheriff Frank Dela Rosa, who criticized his department superiors for "reckless and negligent leadership," Espero said he intended to hold a hearing "soon." Some of Dela Rosa’s complaints were echoed in the auditor’s report.

But Espero said last week that he is busy with other matters, and noted that the department will be under Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration for just a few more months. She leaves office in December.

Espero said that if there are no hearings, he will have private conversations with the administration to try to ensure the problems will not persist.

Jim Propotnick, deputy director of the Department of Public Safety, said department officials would be happy to provide answers to Espero’s questions.

"Everything that was in the report we were aware of," he said. "We’re addressing it, and we’re covering every single thing they brought up."

Higa’s audit investigation from July 2009 to March began by focusing on the sheriff’s backlog of bench warrants, a problem highlighted by a 2006 Honolulu Advertiser series that reported about 61,500 outstanding bench warrants on Oahu allowed defendants to avoid charges and cost the state a potential of $20 million in unpaid fines and fees. About 51,000 warrants were with the Sheriff Division.

The auditor’s report found that the loss of fines should be closer to $10 million for several reasons, including defendants being found not guilty or getting a jail term instead of fines.

But the report noted the outstanding traffic warrants with the sheriff division increased to 54,674 last year, and the backlog represented a "red flag" directing investigators to other problems with the division.

The report said that since it was transferred to Public Safety in 1989, the Sheriff

Division has been "saddled with an ill-defined role and a lack of mission clarity" and has "struggled to uphold its expanded law enforcement duties and responsibilities."

Serving the only state that does not have a state police force, the sheriff and more than 300 deputies not only serve warrants and provide security to state officials, courthouses, the airport and other state facilities; they also are involved in drug enforcement, illegal immigration, criminal investigations, eviction proceedings and traffic enforcement, according to the report.

"Inadequate law enforcement training, issues pertaining to equipment and an absence of procedures related to the staffing and service of the courts have raised questions regarding the safety of the public, the courts and the deputy sheriffs themselves," the report said.

Frank said the administration has been trying to resolve some of the problems the past three years. "We will continue to forge ahead to resolve the issues at hand with the resources and funding we have."


Some of the issues raised by Legislative Auditor Marion Higa’s audit of the Sheriff Division of the state Department of Public Safety, and the department’s responses:

The division has a backlog of 54,674 bench warrants, mostly for traffic violations. One problem is the radio system does not provide adequate coverage, sometimes leaving deputy sheriffs out of contact with fellow deputies and the dispatcher. Also, the receiving desk where people are processed for warrants is at the maximum-security Halawa Correctional Facility, which discourages people from turning themselves in and lengthens and complicates the booking process.

Officials acknowledge "inefficiencies" and point to a hiring freeze that resulted in no additional deputies to serve warrants. Equipment to provide radio coverage has been purchased, but its installation has been delayed. The receiving desk will be transferred to the new sheriff headquarters in downtown Honolulu scheduled for completion late this year or early next year.

The department director acknowledged that "what is needed for the force is woefully lacking." As a practice, the division purchased used vehicles from the federal government that were 5 to 7 years old. For fiscal year 2006 the division estimated that it spent $48,000 on repairs and maintenance, and it estimated 26 vehicles broke down annually. In 2009 the mileage for 47 percent of the sheriff vehicles was between 50,000 and 100,000 miles, and for 24 percent it was more than 100,000. A former sheriff said the division kept the vehicles running with "rubber bands and shoestrings."

Officials said they recognized this was an issue, but the state economic crisis resulted in funding cuts that left the department with no money to replace vehicles. They said the Sheriff Division "made do with what we had."

The director of public safety acknowledged that in-service training for deputy sheriffs has been "woefully inadequate." During 2009 only four law enforcement training classes drew 12 deputies, 4 percent of more than 300 deputy sheriffs.

Officials said they must ensure the training is undertaken through certified courses taught by certified instructors. The officials indicated the state would be liable for any harm caused by a deputy sheriff applying "deficient" training methods.

The Sheriff Division had to replace 69 bulletproof vests by the end of 2009 based on the manufacturer’s five-year warranty, but none of them had been replaced by March.

Officials said they sought to replace the vests in April 2009 but could not get the state general funds because of the fiscal crisis. In November they found another source of funds, and they ordered the vests in February. They also said the warranty limits the manufacturer’s liability and should not be considered a benchmark for the armor’s "service life."

A $600,000 mobile command center was purchased in 2004 but is not yet fully operational as it awaits funding for a satellite system to provide communications.

Officials said radio communications and electronics were both completed last year. The satellite communications link adds costs and is not needed. The center was used in February during the tsunami threat and was moved from its Honolulu Harbor location to higher ground.

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