Hawaii has a private police force of 341 officers patrolling its state-run airports, from Hilo to Honolulu. They carry guns, have the ability to make arrests and call the international security firm Securitas their boss.

Over the years there have been a number of incidents involving these hired security officers that have some lawmakers questioning whether they need more oversight, or whether the arrangement should be scrapped altogether.

A Securitas employee made national headlines in 2012 after booting several stranded tourists from the Kauai airport out onto the street on a stormy night.

There have been more recent allegations of abusive behavior and bribery.

Travelers navigate signs in the Honolulu International Airport. Honolulu, Hawaii 27 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Private security guards who have been issued police powers by the state are coming under legislative scrutiny after questions have been raised about whether they are truly qualified to be law enforcement officers.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Thursday, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office indicted four Securitas employees for taking more than $3,000 from taxi and shuttle drivers in exchange for special treatment when picking up passengers.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin said in a press release that the criminal charges were the result of a months-long undercover investigation conducted in conjunction with the FBI.

The four Securitas employees now face up to 10 years in prison and $25,000 worth of fines each.

Securitas officials in Honolulu were not available for comment Thursday.

UPDATE

The Hawaii Department of Transportation, which oversees the Securitas contract, said through Spokesman Tim Sakahara that it cooperated with the Attorney General’s Office during the investigation.

“We were instructed that once the investigation was underway we could not provide any information or confirm an investigation was even occurring,” Sakahara said in an email. “As much as we would like to respond, we are unable to comment on legal or personnel matters.”

State Sen. Will Espero said the indictment is indicative of the problems a private security force presents when asked to safeguard the public.

He’s introduced legislation that requires the Department of Transportation — which oversees the Securitas contract — to notify the Legislature before it bestows police powers on private contractors.

Espero’s bill also requires that anyone hired to provide armed security at the state’s airports prove that they have the proper education, training and experience to be law enforcement officers before they start work.

As it stands today, Espero said Securitas is in charge of performing background checks on its own employees, as well as ensuring that those hired to carry guns and enforce state and federal laws are legally allowed to do so.

He said that puts a lot of trust in a private contracting firm.

“Because these individuals are carrying guns and have badges we have to make sure that they are properly vetted and capable,” Espero said. “Are we (at the state) confirming and verifying that they (Securitas) are doing everything that they need to do?”

On Jan. 14, Espero sent a list of questions to DOT Director Ford Fuchigami seeking information about Hawaii’s private airport police force and Securitas’ ongoing contract with the state.

There’s also “Aloha Spirit training” so that that officers are courteous while performing their jobs among the millions of tourists flocking to the islands.

Fuchigami’s 15-page response included long excerpts from the Securitas contract and scope of work, and laid out the many requirements the state has for being an airport security worker.

For instance, any security personnel that are issued a gun must have a minimum of two years of professional experience as a law enforcement officer. They also cannot have felony convictions, domestic abuse convictions, or “documented truthfulness infractions.”

Officers must be certified twice a year through a live-fire training program to carry a 9-millimeter handgun, and be trained to abide by a use-of-force policy that includes the use of deadly force.

There’s also “Aloha Spirit training” so that that officers are courteous while performing their jobs among the millions of tourists flocking to the islands.

Fuchigami told Espero that Securitas discovered in 2012 that it had hired former state sheriffs and county police officers who had been terminated, but that Securitas seemed to have handled the issue in house.

“Once discovered, this practice was stopped,” Fuchigami said. “Securitas no longer hires individuals that have been terminated from any law enforcement agency.”

Espero has long had concerns about disgraced police officers transferring between departments, and has introduced legislation to create a statewide database to track individuals who were fired or forced to resign for misconduct.

His bill is in response to the case of Ethan Ferguson, a former Honolulu police officer who was fired for misconduct and then hired by the state to work as a conservation and resources enforcement officer. Ferguson is now accused of sex assault on a minor.

State Sen. Roz Baker, of Maui, also has concerns about the airport police and has introduced legislation of her own to get rid of Securitas or any other private contractors for that matter.

Her bill calls on the state DOT to end its reliance on private contractors to provide armed security at Hawaii airports and instead use sheriffs from the Department of Public Safety.

Senator Will Espero speaks with Senator Roslyn Baker looking on during hearing at Capitol. 17 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sens. Roz Baker and Will Espero want to keep better tabs on the airport police, who are comprised of private contractors hired by Securitas.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Baker was unavailable for comment Thursday, but in a Jan. 25 email to Espero she wrote that she had “grave concerns” that the DOT could create a police force without authorization from the Legislature.

In particular, she worried about the fact that private contractors were being called police, and that there didn’t appear to be the “appropriate oversight and accountability included.”

“I believe that the term Police has a connotation for the public that should not be accorded to contract employees,” Baker said. “If DOT has the resources to outfit and employ contract personnel to serve in a law enforcement capacity, then perhaps the entire program should be reviewed to ascertain if it is more appropriately staffed by state law enforcement personnel.”

Both Baker and Espero’s bills about airport security have been referred to Senate committees, and neither measure has a hearing scheduled.

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