In the past year, the Department of Public Safety has updated most of its law enforcement policies and begun searching for new personnel in an effort to gain accreditation for deputy sheriffs from a national agency nearly a decade after a state law required it to do so.

DPS is about a year into a lengthy process to obtain credentials for its Sheriff Division from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a goal mandated by the Legislature in 2011 as a way to improve problems such as ineffective leadership and a lack of direction.

The division’s lack of accreditation became a point of contention between state lawmakers and former Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda in 2019, prompting the department to step up efforts to complete the five-step process.

Accreditation should be completed by the end of 2022, department spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said.

Public Safety Sheriff vehicle at the Capitol.
Hawaii’s Sheriff Division has started the CALEA accreditation process, which it was required to complete in 2011. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Hawaii’s four county police departments are already accredited by CALEA, a nonprofit organization that sets and assesses national public safety benchmarks. A 2011 law required the Sheriff Division to obtain CALEA accreditation immediately after an audit the previous year exposed major problems.

However, past administrations made no discernible progress toward that goal, according to Espinda.

The department contracted with CALEA to get the ball rolling in December. That began a five phase process that can take at least three years and costs about $21,000, Mark Mosier, CALEA’s Pacific regional program manager, said.

DPS has begun the self-assessment phase, which requires it to review its own programs, update its standards, attend training and make sure that department policies fall in line with CALEA’s standards. An agency like DPS has three years to complete the self-assessment phase.

DPS applied for basic accreditation, which requires compliance with 181 standards, including how individuals are arrested, how information is shared and how internal investigations are conducted as well as fitness conditions, recruitment and dealing with hazardous roadway conditions.

Policy chapters on the DPS website still appear blank.

Those standards represent basic practices for “health, life and safety” that all law enforcement agencies must follow, Mosier said.

Larger agencies, like the Honolulu Police Department, hold advanced accreditation, which requires them to comply with more than 450 CALEA standards.

Bringing policies into compliance involves a lot of paperwork. It includes time spent rewriting and drafting new procedures, running them by legal teams and union representatives.

A majority of the DPS policies have already been adjusted to meet CALEA’s standards, but the department is still finalizing those changes, Schwartz said.

Policy chapters on the DPS website still appear blank.

Staff also need to collect proof that officers are complying with the new standards and present documentation to the CALEA assessors. Those documents could include simple forms like those signed when officers take the oath of office to more complex reports like those filed after shooting incidents.

The process culminates with a site visit from a team of CALEA assessors who will evaluate the department, take public comment and conduct interviews with stakeholders to ascertain whether or not a law enforcement agency is functioning as it should.

Once accreditation is awarded, the process begins all over again, with CALEA conducting annual assessments of agencies.

Getting through the process can be lengthy. The Kauai Police Department worked on accreditation for nine years before CALEA awarded accreditation in 2016.

“Our program is not a cookie cutter program,” Mosier said. “If an agency is not in compliance, they either don’t get accredited or withdraw. (Accreditation) is not a given, and we take pride in that. An agency has to come in voluntarily and has to want to do what is required.”

CALEA also adjusts its own standards and requires agencies to follow suit. This year, Mosier said, CALEA has made several changes to its use of force standards following nationwide calls for police reform. CALEA now bans chokeholds, for example.

Mosier said accredited agencies must comply with the new force standards immediately after being contacted.

HPD Honolulu Police officers patrol along Kalakaua Avenue during COVID-19 pandemic. October 28, 2020
Hawaii’s four county police departments, including the Honolulu Police Department, have all received CALEA accreditation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Updated: The process also has been slowed by personnel issues. In 2019, the Legislature created three new positions that would deal specifically with CALEA accreditation. However, funding was not specifically set aside for those positions.

Schwartz said the department is still trying to fill those positions.

Lawmakers budgeted an additional $843,000 in 2020 and $829,000 in 2021 for the department section that would house those three positions.

The team leading the accreditation process has also changed. Espinda left the department in October, and Fred Hyun, the chair of the Hawaii Paroling Authority, has been named interim director. The governor has yet to name a permanent director.

And earlier this month, Jordan Lowe, a former federal special agent, stepped in as Deputy Director for the Law Enforcement Division, which the deputy sheriffs come under. Renee Sonobe-Hong, the former deputy under whose watch the accreditation process began, moved to the state’s Department of the Attorney General.

Lowe is tasked with finishing the accreditation process.

Jordan brings a broad-based foundation and commitment to law enforcement. I’m confident he will satisfy the CALEA requirements and ensure completion of this national accreditation of our Sheriff Division,” Hyun said in a statement announcing Lowe’s appointment.

Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who has been a critic of DPS in the past, said he’s hopeful that the department will finally get accredited.

“More than anything else it’s the leadership, to make it a priority to get it done. It doesn’t seem to have been a priority with previous directors,” Nishihara said.

Nishihara, who recommended the Senate vote down Espinda, said he has more confidence in Hyun’s leadership, but whoever is nominated to lead the department in the long-term has much work to do.

“You’ve got to rebuild confidence and trust in that department,” Nishihara said.

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