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A state Senate leader and a key environmentalist are questioning why Hawaii wants to equip its conservation officers with additional firepower — specifically 20 semi-automatic rifles and 10 12-gauge shotguns.
“Could you please explain why your officers would need semi-automatic weapons?” Sen. Will Espero, the Senate vice president, wrote to Department of Land and Natural Resources head Suzanne Case earlier this month, the day before the state land board was set to consider a request by DLNR to more heavily arm its officers.
Officers with the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement are already issued a Glock 22, a .40 caliber semi-automatic service handgun. There are already 12-gauge pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns and .223 caliber rifles in DOCARE’s inventory.
The inventory includes 88 rifles and 99 shotguns used by 106 law enforcement positions in DOCARE: 40 on Oahu, 24 on Maui, 28 for Hawaii County and 14 for Kauai.
“People go out to commune with nature, but it is not comforting to know that there are now more guns in our wild areas.”— Marti Townsend, Sierra Club Hawaii
The reasons for more weapons, say officials with DOCARE and DLNR, which administers the agency, is because the officers are involved in sometimes dangerous work — one heightened by recent terrorist attacks outside of Hawaii — and because there are not enough weapons in the current inventory to provide current officers and new hires.
“DOCARE, as with other law enforcement agencies, must deal with emerging threats to the public’s safety including the possibility of terrorism and active shooters such as what has occurred in Paris and San Bernardino,” Case wrote to Espero on Dec. 11. “The foremost priorities of any law enforcement agency are public safety and officer safety.”
Case added, “The firearms being requested to be procured here will enhance DOCARE’s capability to protect the public from an uncertain, unpredictable threat and provide greater means of protection for our employees, who also have families and want to return to them at the end of their shifts.”
In his Dec. 10 inquiry, Espero told Case that he knows the job of law enforcement can be dangerous.
“However, I am not aware of situations in the past where DLNR officers were outgunned or in need of more fire power,” he wrote.
Concerns were also raised by Marti Townsend, the director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. In testimony to the board Dec. 11 she warned, “It would be extremely irresponsible for the board to approve this request.”
Townsend added, “While we fully support ensuring the safety of our natural resources officers, we do not agree that arming them with military-style weaponry will accomplish this goal.”
The Board of Land and Natural Resources, which Case chairs, last week approved a one-year, $57,000 deal with Security Equipment Corp.
Jason Redulla, DOCARE’s acting chief who submitted the request, said his division has had semi-automatic rifles and shotguns for several years. He also identified potential dangers such as terrorist attacks as rational for the weaponry.
Asked for an example where the use of the firearms had been helpful in DOCARE’s work, Redulla said, “Officers frequently come across people who are armed with knives, bows, and firearms in the course of their duties. While most sportsmen in the field are law abiding citizens, there are some who are not. In particular, many poachers are armed with high-caliber rifles. Over the course of the last few months, officers have seized semi-automatic rifles from violators on several occasions. Any one of these instances could have been a dangerous situation simply because a firearm was involved.”
The Sierra Club’s Townsend scoffed at the idea that DOCARE is not sufficiently armed already and that it has to be prepared for a terrorist attack.
“Officers frequently come across people who are armed with knives, bows, and firearms in the course of their duties.” —DOCARE Acting Enforcement Chair Jason Redulla
“If you feel there is that kind of threat to public safety, call the police department,” she said. “We have a very robust, well-trained and well-equipped police department.”
Townsend pointed to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting held in Honolulu in 2011 as an example of how local law enforcement is already prepared for an attack. As Civil Beat reported at the time, the Honolulu Police Department sought more than $700,000 in nonlethal weapon technology leading up to APEC, including for pepper spray projectiles, bean bag ammunition and Taser cartridges.
Local law enforcement possess exactly the types of firearms that DLNR is seeking, according to Case.
“Please note that the rifles and shotguns involved in this procurement are typical weapons that are in the arsenals of our partner law enforcement agencies,” Case told Espero. “The shotguns are Remington Model 1187, 12 gauge semi-automatics, and the rifles are LMT .223 caliber M-4 style semi-automatic rifles. Both of these types of weapons are very common and used by the county police departments, the State Sheriff Division and other law enforcement agencies throughout the world.”
Still, Townsend worries that DOCARE appears to be moving away from its stated mission, which is “to protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources held in public trust for current and future generations of visitors and the people of Hawaii nei.”
The resources consist of 2 million acres under DLNR control that include state parks, boat harbors, conservation districts, natural area reserves, hunting grounds and remote trails.
“People go out to commune with nature, but it is not comforting to know that there are now more guns in our wild areas,” she said.
But DOCARE’s Redulla say his officers are state law enforcement officers with full police powers who are “expected and obligated to act any time a citizen is in peril if laws are being violated, just as any police officer or deputy sheriff would be. Incidents that have occurred in Paris and San Bernardino can happen at any time, as these threats are unpredictable.”
As such, said Redulla, it is DOCARE’s obligation to provide its employees with “the necessary tools to do their jobs in as safe a manner as possible and these weapons will fulfill that obligation.”
In Townsend’s view, however, DLNR’s embrace of more weapons amounts to a “mission drift” away from conservation and resource management and toward a militarization of law enforcement.
“What we have learned from Ferguson and other communities dealing with police brutality is that when we have a more military law enforcement, you have more conflicts, not less,” she said, referring to the shooting of an African-American man by a white officer in Missouri last year.
To underscore her point, Townsend pointed to a Hawaii News Now report in July that said Redulla had posted on Facebook a photo of an AR-15 assault rifle along with a famous quote from the Al Pacino movie “Scarface” — “Say hello to my little friend.”
The post came as protesters were camped out on Mauna Kea to prevent construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Officers from DOCARE and DLNR have helped arrest protesters and remove tents on the mountain.
The report noted that the post came from Redulla. He later removed the post and DLNR issued a statement explaining that the AR-15 was Redulla’s personal weapon and that both he and Case regretted the posting.
Informed by the responses of Case and Redulla to his inquiry and ones made by Civil Beat, Espero said he understands the need for DOCARE officers to be armed and able to protect themselves.
“Being in rural, country environments could mean delays or lengthy times for backup support,” he said. “There are evil people in the world who are well-armed and willing to injure or kill someone who gets in their way. Our state officers need to be prepared for anything.”
Espero’s hope, however, is that the officers are consistently and properly trained in use of the weapons, and that they “should not be aggressive in their use just because they have the weapons.”
Townsend echoed the call for training and also called for policies “that make clear where a DOCARE officer feels his or her life is at risk, then the only course of action is to call for support from fellow DOCARE officers or county police.”