Nolan Espinda’s time on the hot seat has just begun.
After hearing more than two hours of testimony Thursday on whether the director of the Department of Public Safety should keep his job, a Senate committee indicated there would be two more days of hearings next week.
The Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a second hearing Tuesday to ask questions of department staff about issues such as the March riot at the Maui Community Correctional Center, which Espinda said was at least partially the result of overcrowded conditions.
The committee is expected to vote April 11 on whether to recommend Espinda’s reconfirmation, which will ultimately be decided by the full Senate no matter what the committee does.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Sen. Clarence Nishihara has already said he wants Espinda out.
Nishihara told Civil Beat he does not plan to subpoena witnesses or documents for the hearing Tuesday. He said he doesn’t know yet if a majority of his committee members will vote to recommend Espinda’s reconfirmation. He recently told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he opposes it.
Based on written testimony and what was said in a packed hearing room Thursday, Nishihara is not alone in opposing Espinda.
Shawn Tsuha, a deputy sheriff lieutenant, criticized Espinda for a lack of attention to the sheriffs division. Tsuha was the deputy director for law enforcement at DPS from 2013 to December 2016. He also served two stints as the state sheriff from March 2011 to June 2013 and from January to June 2017.
Tsuha noted the department has not pursued accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, even though the Legislature requires that.
“If you believe that the division is under some type of strategic direction, I posit that’s not correct,” Tsuha said.
The current state sheriff, Al Cummings, supported Espinda.
“I’ve never worked under any director like Nolan Espinda,” Cummings said. “I’ve never witnessed an administrator who works so diligently and cares so much about his department.”
He said that Espinda and his deputy director for law enforcement, Renee Sonobe-Hong, have brought more accountability to the sheriffs division.
“Sheriffs must recognize that the old school ways of thinking and even behaving have changed,” Cummings said. “I have had to learn and accept that myself.”
Besides some people in his own department, Espinda has other high-profile endorsements coming from his fellow cabinet members in a show of solidarity within the administration. Even Doug Chin, the former attorney general, made an appearance Thursday to support Espinda.
Gov. David Ige has stayed steadfast in his support for Espinda, who has been DPS director since 2015. Before that, Espinda worked in the department for 32 years, including two stints each as warden at Halawa Correctional Facility and the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Espinda highlighted some of his accomplishments in written testimony to senators. He said he had reduced overtime abuse by prison workers and the cancellations of visits by inmate’s family members due to staff issues.
He cited other accomplishments when he testified at the end of Thursday’s hearing.
Espinda said the department has purchased new rifles to replace outdated AR-15s. He also said that under his directorship, the Law Enforcement Division in DPS requires officers to go through 40 hours of in-service training each year.
He acknowledged in his written testimony the department still needs to get its sheriffs division accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, something the Legislature has required since 2011.
“I fully recognize that the progress towards this goal is not up to the desired level that I had committed myself to four years ago,” Espinda wrote. “That shortcoming falls to me and to no one else.”
Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Chair Clarence Nishihara
In a March 12 letter to lawmakers, Espinda said that it could still be four more years before the department is able to bring its policies and procedures up to CALEA’s standards. But he told the committee Thursday that he hopes to attain CALEA accreditation within the next two or three years.
His department has faced especially heavy scrutiny since February, when a deputy sheriff fatally shot a man on the Capitol grounds. The man’s family said he was physically handicapped.
And the March 11 riot at the Maui Community Correctional Center drew public attention to Hawaii’s overcrowded prisons.
Both are expected to be main points for the committee’s questions Tuesday.
Nishihara’s committee will focus on the circumstances, timeline, policies and responses surrounding the MCCC riots and the shooting at the State Capitol at Tuesday’s hearing.
Nikos Leverenz, a frequent lobbyist on social justice and criminal reform issues, testified that legislators also have a role to play in DPS’s perceived shortcomings.
The Legislature has failed to act on several criminal justice reforms this session. It is, however, considering a measure to reform Hawaii’s bail system that was previously killed.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is expected Friday to gut the contents of House Bill 456, which would’ve required DPS to revise use of force policies, and replace it with more funding for MCCC.
The new draft of the bill would give the department $5.3 million to repair damages from the March riot, and give it $8 million in bonds next fiscal year for electric and mechanical work, security improvements and ceiling repairs.
Throughout most of the hearing Thursday, Espinda sat still, hands crossed with a stoic expression on his face.
But the former prison warden’s eyes welled up when his wife, Malia Espinda, testified in support of him.
“Let me let you all in on a little secret. It’s the worst kept secret: Nolan is not very warm and fuzzy,” she said, prompting laughter.
“But that’s not why I married him. I married him because he is extraordinarily intelligent.”
Her testimony before lawmakers gave the public rare insight into the private life of the DPS director.
She said she was a former executive assistant to previous DPS directors.
Espinda has the mind of an engineer, she said, and will often mull over solutions to work problems throughout the day, even while sitting in traffic.
She praised Espinda for promoting women to leadership roles in the department. Each of his division heads are women.
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