Gov. David Ige’s administration wants to create a new statewide police agency that would allow its officers to investigate crimes and enforce laws independently from county police departments, state officials said Friday.

The proposal, which may be introduced this legislative session, would split the state Department of Public Safety into two separate departments. One department would oversee the state’s correctional system, while the other would consolidate state officers under a new Department of Law Enforcement.

That new agency would include the state deputy sheriffs, who are now under the public safety department, and investigators from the state Attorney General’s office, Holly Shikida, the new AG, told state lawmakers.

Public Safety Sheriff vehicle at the Capitol.
The Department of Public Safety wants to break off its Sheriffs Division into a separate agency with other state officers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

State officers who oversee harbors and airports may also be moved into this new agency, Shikida said.

In a written statement, the Department of Public Safety acknowledged that it plans to introduce a bill to the Legislature but declined to provide additional details on the proposed agency.

This new state police agency would investigate crimes. The AG’s office would decide which crimes should be charged by the state and which should be forwarded to county prosecutors, according to Shikida.

She said this reorganization is necessary to help the state address issues on state lands.

“We’ve had such difficulty getting assistance from the county on some of these things,” Shikida said. “We need to address public safety issues for the public as well as on state lands and in state buildings. This was a move to protect the state.”

Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Public Safety, Military and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, said state sheriffs have been concerned about being placed in the same department as corrections staff for years now.

Talks over this most recent bill started last year under former Attorney General Clare Connors, who is now the U.S. attorney for Hawaii. Previous proposals considered consolidating all officers in the state, including county police under one agency.

But this new proposal would only seek to combine the sheriffs, some investigators with the Attorney General’s office and possible conservation enforcement officers from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Nishihara, whose committee would need to vet such a proposal, said the measure “is a good bill for the Legislature to go along with.”

“They’ve had concerns that maybe the law enforcement side of public safety should be separate from the corrections side, which is the prison guards,” Nishihara said.

State corrections and law enforcement were once separate entitles but were combined into the current Department of Public Safety in 1990.

Lawmakers and the administration have considered dividing the department several times in the last two decades.

In 2019, the Legislative Reference Bureau produced a report looking at that issue. “Joining Forces? Potential Consolidation of State Law Enforcement Duties In Hawaii” found that state law enforcement agencies couldn’t reach a consensus on whether to consolidate.

The report recommended the state look at “every conceivable issue associated with consolidation” including costs and labor issues.

In 2003, former Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration introduced a bill to split the department. At the end of that session, the Legislature instead passed a measure ordering the department to conduct a feasibility study first.

The downside would be added administrative costs for one of the new agencies. Dividing the department would require the new agencies to hire 23 additional personnel at a cost of $1.6 million, or about $2.4 million today, according to the report.

But splitting the department could come with advantages, such as having each director focused on either corrections or law enforcement — but not both.

“No department director seems to have stepped into the job with the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience in both law enforcement and corrections,” then-interim director Richard Bissen wrote in the report.

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