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A state legislator is taking issue with comments made at a legislative hearing Wednesday by a top state land department official that implied the agency’s law enforcement officers need semi-automatic weapons to guard against fishermen from the Philippines and Indonesia working in local waters who may be Muslim.
The official, Thomas Friel, “appeared to suggest that these were needed because people working as fishermen, specifically workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, may be Muslim,” Rep. Matt LoPresti said in a letter Wednesday to Suzanne Case, chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“Would you please clarify if in fact the Department of Land and Natural Resources requires special weaponry because of this?” LoPresti, a Democrat representing Ewa, Ewa Beach and other areas in West Oahu, wrote.
Thomas Friel is chief of the DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, a position he has held for less than a month.
The DLNR emailed a statement from Case to Civil Beat late Thursday:
“DLNR and its Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement in no way condone racial profiling. DNLR and DOCARE Chief Thomas Friel regret any possible interpretation otherwise in his response. Chief Friel’s comments were based on his observations and experiences while serving in a previous law enforcement capacity with federal agencies.
“DOCARE officers encounter armed people in remote areas under dangerous circumstances. Law enforcement is very unpredictable, very uncertain, and potentially dangerous. DOCARE enforcement responsibilities cover public lands and state waters out to 3 miles – covering a total area of 4.3 million acres; more than 40,000 acres per officer.”
Asked about Case’s response, LoPresti said: “It failed to mention religious profiling such as of Filipinos. And it points to obvious concerns that we should have about federal agencies profiling in the way described by this veteran officer.”
As Civil Beat reported last month, DOCARE wants to buy dozens of semi-automatic rifles for law enforcement personnel.
The request prompted Senate Vice President Will Espero to question why Hawaii wanted to equip its conservation officers with additional firepower — 20 semi-automatic rifles and 10 12-gauge shotguns on top of DOCARE’s existing arsenal.
Officials with DOCARE and DLNR said at the time that the officers are sometimes involved in dangerous work and that there are not enough weapons to provide current officers and new hires. The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Calif., were specifically referenced by the officials — Case and Jason Redulla, DOCARE’s acting chief at the time.
Marti Townsend of the Sierra Club of Hawaii complained that county police departments are the more appropriate agency to address terrorist threats, and she questioned what she sees as the trend toward militarization of DOCARE officers.
LoPresti, in his letter Wednesday, raised the same concern.
“I find the trend toward militarization of our police forces (both locally and nationally) deeply troubling,” he wrote. “My concerns are compounded however by the apparent suggestion that law enforcement may be profiling people based on their religious beliefs and utterly shocked at the attempt to justify the purchase of high powered weaponry just because Muslims exist.”
LoPresti told Civil Beat Thursday, “I don’t think park rangers with rifles are going to stop potential terrorists on fishing boats — that’s the Coast Guard’s job.”
The representative said he is now worried that DLNR may have made themselves vulnerable to a legal challenge “any time DLNR officers come into contact with Muslims. … Because (Friel) clearly said some Filipinos and Muslims are some sort of threat. That’s completely unacceptable, and they need to clarify.”
Here is an excerpt of the exchange between LoPresti, a member of the House Finance Committee, and Friel. It comes near the end of a long joint budget briefing by Finance and Senate Ways and Means, which was broadcast and recorded by Capitol TV. (Watch a video of the full exchange is posted below):
Rep. LoPresti: I’m just really concerned about the I think inappropriate use of otherwise legitimate concerns about terrorists around the globe being used to justify what I would call the militarization of our police forces at home. I don’t think your officers are going to be running into ISIS on Mauna Kea. Nor do I think that the kinds of problems that your officers will face, I hope to God, with any kinds of activists whatsoever will ever require something like the use of semi-automatic rilfes. And it just seemed like a questionable decision. That’s all. We can agree to disagree, but that’s how I see it.
Thomas Friel: Thank you. Just as one aside, working as a NOAA special agent and a supervising special agent for the past 28 years, I worked heavily with the domestic fishing fleet here, in the state and throughout the Pacific Basin. I would say that 70 percent of the commercial fishermen on these boats are from the Philippines and Indonesia, which are highly populated Muslim populations. And as a result, most federal agencies within the state are looking at them through a magnifying glass. I’m not saying that it will occur, but it is something as intelligence gatherers that we need to look at and be prepared for and be proactive about. Thank you.
LoPresti: Did you just say that you guys are profiling people based on their religion?
LoPresti: That’s what I heard.
Friel: I said that we are looking at them.
LoPresti: I’ll follow up with other questions offline. Thank you, chair.
Friel also was chastized at the budget hearing by Rep. Romy Cachola, a Democrat who represents Kapalama, Kalihi Kai and neighboring areas.
Cachola, a Filipino, told Friel it’s a mistake to say that the Philippines is mostly a Muslim nation, explaining that that is the case only in the Visayan region of the country. The Philippines, Cachola said, is mostly a Christian, Catholic nation.
Friel became DOCARE chief Dec. 28.
In a statement issued at the time of his hire, Case said, “Enforcement of laws aimed at protecting our precious natural and cultural resources is one of the most important roles DLNR plays. To attract someone of Tommy’s stature and experience ensures a strong enforcement philosophy with fairness and balance.”
Friel had more than 20 years experience with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement, Pacific Island Division. “With Tommy’s experience working with ocean fisheries, marine mammals and endangered species, he is a natural fit for the State’s top conservation law enforcement role,” the release said.
Friel, described by DLNR as a lifelong resident of windward Oahu, said: “My passion in protecting Hawaii’s natural resources stems from my commitment to creating a brighter tomorrow for our keiki and mo’opuna (grandchild).”