The embattled state Department of Public Safety went under a new level of oversight and scrutiny in the era of COVID-19 on Tuesday after Gov. David Ige announced that he has appointed the chairman of the state Hawaii Paroling Authority as Ige’s “special master” over DPS.
Edmund “Fred” Hyun will serve double duty as special master over DPS through September while continuing to chair the Paroling Authority, a position he’s held for the past four years.
Hyun’s appointment as special master follows last month’s abrupt retirement announcements of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda and beleaguered Health Director Bruce Anderson. They were Ige’s fourth and fifth department heads to depart since July.
Ige appointed Maria Cook, DPS deputy director for administration, to replace Espinda while he is on personal leave this month. Ige’s office at the time said he was planning to appoint an interim head of DPS.
“During this transition period, she has called for all hands on deck to identify and report back to her on the areas of most immediate concern for the department divisions, the current plans underway to contain the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and solutions to the overcrowded conditions contributing to the current crisis in our jails. All this while coordinating with the union to address employee concerns,” DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said of Cook in an email.
“Fred Hyun was just named today to be the Governor’s Special Master tasked with assessing PSD operations and helping with the Department’s COVID-19 response through September. His first task today was meeting with Deputy Director Cook to get caught up on the current operations and initiatives underway.”
State Sen. Clarence Nishihara (D, Waipahu-Pearl City) chairs the Senate committee on public safety, intergovernmental affairs and military affairs, and welcomed Hyun’s new oversight of DPS.
“I have a great deal of respect for Ed Hyun,” Nishihara said.
With two years left in Ige’s final term, Nishihara hopes that Hyun is able to identify long-standing problems at DPS and come up with potential remedies in time for Ige to make changes.
“I would hope it would not be a whitewash of the problems they’ve had,” Nishihara said. “Instead, I would hope that Ed is able to identify where things have gone wrong and be willing to discuss it and what the plans are.”
The COVID-19 pandemic likely played a role in the recent departures among some of Ige’s department heads, Nishihara said, along with some notable “criticism of how they performed.”
“You need to get good leadership in there,” he said.
According to Ige’s office, Hyun has an undergraduate psychology degree and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Hawaii; served in the Hawaii Air National Guard; worked as a youth corrections officer at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, where he started the first halfway house for wards; addressed jail overcrowding as a supervisor with the Oahu Intake Service Center; and became the center’s manager before retiring from DPS in 2003. Hyun later worked for the Honolulu Liquor Commission.
After the Hawaii Supreme Court this year began ordering the release of some inmates due to COVID-19, Hyun wrote an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in which he said:
“The Supreme Court’s order and COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront the full totality of jail and prison overcrowding. But, overcrowding is nothing new. Public attitude and legislation in the 1970s enacted mandatory sentencing laws, and stricter minimum sentencing policies that overwhelmed the jail and prison facilities, forcing ‘band-aid’ approaches to house the increasing court commitments.
“Criminal behavior cannot be fixed by government alone. It takes a community and a commitment by all. It is expensive to ‘lock them up and throw away the key.’ It is an investment to establish treatment programs, neighborhood ‘drop in centers,’ and youth services. No matter what, the community needs to be a part of the solution.
“Lock-up temporarily masks but does not fix the problem; neither does throwing stones.”
A week before Espinda retired, the United Public Workers — which represents prison workers and staff — had called for Espinda’s immediate removal after the union blamed “months of inaction by the state” to stop the spread of COVID-19 at Oahu Community Correctional Center. The Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii’s largest public workers union, then joined UPW in calling for Espinda’s removal.
HGEA said front-line DPS workers lacked proper personal protective equipment, had no clear safety protocols and were not notified of COVID-19 cases in their facilities.
As of Tuesday, 292 DPS inmates and 92 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Most of those have recovered.
HGEA officials also called for safety protocol improvements at OCCC, the Honolulu District Court Cellblock, Hawaii Paroling Authority and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
In a statement Tuesday, Ige said:
“Managing our overcrowded, aging, chronically understaffed correctional facilities is one of the toughest jobs in the state. The COVID-19 pandemic makes the job even more difficult. I have directed Fred to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment of the Department of Public Safety and to work with Dep. Director Maria Cook to implement any needed changes to enable it to operate more effectively.”