Hawaii’s Legislature tried more than two decades ago to broaden and consolidate the state’s public safety functions but the effort has been a failure. A new audit of the Public Safety Department’s Sheriff Division finds "confusion" and "pressing problems" under "ineffective leadership." The bedlam calls for a drastic overhaul in operations and mindset of the inefficient Sheriff Division.
For many years, the state sheriff’s office was an arm of the Judiciary, serving bench warrants and providing security at state buildings, but it became scandalous for fixing traffic tickets and engaging in improper political activities. The Legislature transferred it in 1989 to the Public Safety Department and gave the division of nearly 300 deputy sheriffs the authority to engage in as wide an area of law enforcement as the department’s director wants.
State Auditor Marion Higa’s audit began by focusing on the sheriff’s backlog of bench warrants, a problem highlighted by a 2006 Honolulu Advertiser series that found some 51,000 outstanding bench warrants with the Sheriff Division cost the state millions of dollars in unpaid fines and fees. Higa’s report estimated the loss in fines at about $10 million; moreover, it found that outstanding traffic warrants with the Sheriff Division rose to 54,674 last year.
It is outrageous that a problem that was publicly flagged more than three years ago has languished unfixed — and further, was allowed to worsen. For a state economy that is crying poverty at the expense of educating its youth, the unrecouped millions, lackadaisical attitude toward risky drivers, and blatant condoning of a broken system are all unconscionable.
Where is the oversight, the accountability, the remedy? And here, another ominous finding: Higa determined there are "more pressing problems" within the division than collecting money from traffic tickets.
Unlike all other states, which have highway patrols as statewide police, Hawaii relies primarily on counties for law enforce- ment. After the 9/11 terrorist attack, Congress required all states to perform an array of duties, neglecting to take into account the reality of the limited law-enforcement functions of Hawaii’s state government then.
The Sheriff Division’s responsibilities now include drug enforcement, illegal immigration, fugitive arrests, criminal investigations, eviction proceedings and traffic enforcement, Higa noted. The department reported in 2005 that it has come up short in dollars and manpower. Surely, the $10 million in unpursued traffic fines would have helped.
In February, Frank Dela Rosa retired as head of the division, accusing his superiors of "reckless and negligent" leadership. Higa found that "the lack of departmental guidance and commitment has resulted in a Sheriff Division that is saddled with responsibilities exceeding its capabilities." She determined that "poor leadership has led to a division that may be a risk to the public it is supposed to protect."
Department Director Clayton Frank acknowledges "deficiencies" — we consider that an understatement — but added that Higa’s reference to public risk is "an overstatement of the day-to-day reality."
No. Public safety cannot hinge, or be reassured, on the deficient party’s say-so. More scrutiny and improvement are sorely needed, and overdue.
State Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, needs to proceed with hearings on the functioning of the Sheriff Division. Further, the division’s mission must be defined and its responsibilities refined — before it deteriorates into a unit that begs the question: Is it helping or hindering?