When it comes to his nominees for top state offices, Gov. David Ige is loyal to a fault.

It’s hard to forget the scene that played out in 2015 when the new governor actually interrupted a Senate committee confirmation hearing to defend Carlton Ching, his choice to be director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Ching was a longtime lobbyist for the development industry on leave from his job at Castle & Cooke, which was at the time involved in a possible land swap deal involving pineapple fields it owned along the Honolulu rail route.

Environmentalists weren’t the only ones howling about the conflicts of interest Ching would have, not to mention his lack of qualifications to lead Hawaii’s efforts to safeguard and steward its public land. And yet Ige stood by his nominee even after the committee voted to oppose his nomination, surrendering on the Senate floor only when it was clear he didn’t have the votes to win confirmation.

Now comes Nolan Espinda, who Ige renominated for another term as director of the Department of Public Safety. On Thursday, a Senate committee voted unanimously to oppose confirming Espinda. Within hours, the governor was voicing his support for his nominee and indicating he’d again take the fight to the Senate floor.

Governor David Ige with Director of Public Safety Nolad Espinda at press conference
Gov. David Ige is making a mistake by sticking with his choice of Nolan Espinda, left, for another term as director of the Department of Public Safety. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The governor should reconsider, not just because he’s likely to lose that Senate vote, but because it’s obvious Hawaii needs to move in a different direction when it comes to DPS leadership.

A sad spectacle played out as Senate committee members attempted to question Espinda and his law enforcement deputy director, Renee Sonobe-Hong. Sitting between them was Deputy Attorney General Craig Iha, who kept a tight rein on the DPS officials and prevented them from providing any substantial information about two recent fatal shootings and a Maui jail riot.

In February, a deputy sheriff fatally shot an unarmed man who was holding an open container of alcohol on the Capitol grounds. His family described him as physically disabled. And in March, corrections officers shot and killed an unarmed man who they say had escaped from the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

The same month, inmates at the Maui Community Correctional Center rioted, causing an estimated $5.3 million worth of damages. Espinda said inmates were upset about overcrowded conditions.

All three incidents are evidence of possible DPS leadership problems when it comes to training deputy sheriffs and adequately staffing jails, and yet the officials were silenced because the cases are under investigation. It was easy to sympathize with Sen. Clarence Nishihara, the frustrated committee chairman who lamented, “It’s hard to address the elephant in the room if you can’t address the elephant in the room.”

When Espinda and Sonobe-Hong did respond to questions, their answers were far from satisfying.

Senators drilled in on why the DPS had not yet gained accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, even though it was ordered to do so by the Legislature eight years ago.

That accreditation, which all four county police departments already hold, covers topics like use of force, weapons, training and conduct.

Sonobe-Hong said the DPS has not yet formally applied of the accreditation because CALEA recommended the department first get all its policies in place.

Espinda tried to deflect the blame further, saying the DPS had made “absolutely no discernible or tangible progress” toward CALEA accreditation during the four years before he became director.

And when he did take over in 2015, he said he mistakenly relied too much on the department’s holdovers from the administration of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

That’s an argument that might hold some weight, say, one year into Espinda’s term. After four years, it’s more an admission of failure.

These are reasons enough not to reconfirm Espinda, but the real “elephant in the room” is that his department hasn’t done enough to help address the desperate need for overhauling Hawaii’s corrections system. Its prisons and jails are dangerously overcrowded, and many of the people behind bars are pretrial detainees charged with minor crimes.

A pair of task forces created by the Legislature have studied the problems and recommended sound solutions that would move us toward a less punitive, more rehabilitative criminal justice system in general and would specifically reform cash bail policies that help clog the jails and discriminate against poor defendants.

Many of those recommendations are included in bills that are still alive in the Legislature this session.

The DPS has generally been supportive of the measures in written testimony reminding legislators that it would need more money to institute the changes. But Espinda hasn’t taken a lead role in pushing for the reforms that directly address the system he oversees.

That’s what an effective leader would do, and it’s time for the Department of Public Safety to have one.

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