State public safety officials defended their management of the Sheriff Division yesterday, insisting they are doing what they can with limited resources to meet increasing demands.
The Sheriff Division was the focus of a scathing report issued by state Legislative Auditor Marion Higa earlier this summer. The audit said lax management and equipment problems are contributing to conditions that could jeopardize public safety.
"There were things that were brought up by the auditor that we take to heart, that we need to improve on," said Clayton Frank, director of the Department of Public Safety, to a joint hearing of the Senate and House public safety committees yesterday. But Frank said there are also good explanations for other problems Higa raised.
Since merging with corrections functions to form the Department of Public Safety in 1989, "the Sheriff Division has been woefully underfunded, and over the years the requirements of our deputy sheriffs have increased," Frank said.
New Judiciary programs such as Drug Court, the HOPE program and the Youth Court have increased responsibilities but without additional funding for personnel, he said.
"We’re like caught between a rock and a hard place," Frank said. "Our deputy sheriffs are doing a lot more with less."
Also highlighted in recent weeks has been the lack of planning for about two dozen sheriffs at the new Judiciary Building in Kapolei. About 16 sheriffs, or their positions, have had to be temporarily assigned to the building, including six from the Big Island.
As a result of the position shuffling, six of 12 funded sheriff positions for five courts in West Hawaii have shifted temporarily to Kapolei. That has caused the Judiciary to close for now part-time satellite courthouses in North Kohala, Hamakua and Kau.
The Kona situation was exacerbated by the Judiciary’s decision to staff its Waimea courthouse with a judge five days a week.
Public safety officials said the Sheriff Division is short about 27 positions. The department is using 89-day temporary hires in the interim, Frank said. A recruit class of 25-plus individuals will not begin until about February, and it will be an additional six months before they are on the streets.
The Judiciary and Public Safety are finalizing a new agreement spelling out what duties are expected of sheriffs due to the opening of the Kapolei courthouse.
Higa told lawmakers yesterday that the department has taken on additional duties without obtaining additional staffing.
In response to a question from Senate Public Safety Chairman Will Espero, Frank and Deputy Director Jim Propotnick said they would support splitting the sheriffs’ law enforcement function from corrections responsibilities.
Espero (D, Ewa-Kapolei-Ewa Beach) said after the meeting that he will introduce legislation to create what in effect would be a stand-alone law enforcement agency combining sheriffs with those with police powers now currently in the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Department of Transportation.
Frank said a similar plan was tried in the early 1990s but failed due to lack of funding and other support.