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Task force must define sheriffs’ role

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For more than two decades, the limited law-enforcement arm of Hawaii’s state government has sought a respected place and function. A task force created by this year’s Legislature, finally, will determine whether sheriffs can become more effective if allowed to depart the Department of Public Safety and become their own department. Key issues should be whether such independence would be economical, and truly, what duties these workers are essential for.

All other states have semi-autonomous police, highway patrol or state patrol departments, but not Hawaii. For too long, the sheriff’s department was part of Hawaii’s Judiciary until the deputy courts administrator was caught fixing traffic tickets following criticism for handing out deputy sheriff’s badges to legislators, business people and close friends. Legislators transferred the sheriff and deputies to the Public Safety Department in 1989.

It’s been a questionable fit. That department’s main focus is operating state prisons. Its "public safety" functions are assigned to the Sheriff Division, which has about 300 sheriffs. The division is assigned functions in a wide area of law enforcement but not nearly as extensive as that in other states. It includes drug enforcement, illegal immigration, fugitive arrests, criminal investigations, evictions and traffic enforcement, but the state continues to rely on counties to enforce state laws.

State Auditor Marion Higa criticized the Sheriff Division last year for failing to collect unpaid fines and fees totalling about $10 million due from outstanding bench warrants and failing to collect on more than 54,000 outstanding traffic warrants. That raises a question whether a law-enforcement division would perform better if let loose from a department focused on operating prisons.

Deputy sheriffs testified to legislators in favor of separating from the Public Safety Department. One said the Sheriff Division had become "little more than a small cog on a very large wheel that is the Department of Corrections by another name." Another deputy pointed out that public safety departments in other states "do exactly that; keep the public safe through law enforcement."

State legislators this year considered a bill that would have separated the Sheriff Division from the Public Safety Department. They backed away after the Abercrombie administration opposed it as "premature due to the lack of infrastructure" within the division. Separating the division from the department "would require a large expenditure of funds … during these tough economic times" to create a new bureaucracy in a new facility, testified Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, the interim public safety director. She supported forming a task force to look into the issue.

A key issue of the task force’s inquiry should be whether Hawaii’s state sheriffs are assigned duties broad and extensive enough to merit an entire department. If not, should duties assigned to state law enforcers in other states — such as traffic safety compliance — be shifted from county police officers to Hawaii sheriffs? The task force will have its hands full in determining an agency structure that can maintain oversight over these workers — as well as justifying whether they are indeed truly necessary without being duplicative.

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