The Hawaii Senate voted 17-8 on Wednesday to reconfirm Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda for another term.

The Senate’s vote came after a tumultuous couple of months for Espinda and his department.

“If not Nolan, who?” Sen. Kurt Fevella said from the Senate floor. “There’s no one who has the backbone.”

The prospects for Espinda’s reconfirmation had been tenuous since the legislative session began in January, but Gov. David Ige stood by Espinda, who he first nominated to head the DPS in 2015.

Director Nolan Espinda is confirmed with wife and Governor Ige at his side.
Nolan Espinda, center, listens to the Senate deliberations Wednesday along with his wife, Malia, and Gov. David Ige. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“I always knew Nolan Espinda was the right man for the job,” Ige said at a press conference following the vote.

Sens. Clarence Nishihara, Breene Harimoto and Roz Baker, all members of a Senate committee that recommended rejecting Espinda’s reconfirmation, reiterated problems they saw in the DPS.

For Nishihara, it was the department’s lack of focus on its Sheriffs Division. For Baker, it was the conditions of the state prisons. And for Harimoto, it was the numerous complaints and concerns he said he’s received from DPS staff.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said that it will be incumbent on the Senate to make sure Espinda follows through on his promises over the next four years.

At a press conference following the vote, Espinda said he would address the issues that arose during the months leading up to the confirmation vote.

“I am confident and grateful for the opportunity to move forward the next four years and address each and every one of those things,” Espinda said.

“Everything that happens in this department is my responsibility,” he said. “Everything, whether good or bad, lands on my desk.”

A Rough Four Months

The first quarter of 2019 has been volatile for Espinda and his department.

In February, a state deputy sheriff fatally shot a homeless man who was carrying an open container of alcohol and refused to leave the Capitol grounds. The dead man, Delmar Espejo, was described by family members as physically handicapped.

In March, corrections officers fatally shot an Oahu Community Correctional Center escapee, Maurice Arisgado Jr.

Both Espejo and Arisgado were reportedly unarmed.

Also in March, over 40 inmates rioted at the Maui Community Correctional Center, causing an estimated $5.3 million in damages. At the time Espinda cited inmates’ dissatisfaction with the jail’s overcrowded conditions as at least one of the causes of the uprising.

Those incidents highlighted long-standing problems for the DPS that became flash points for the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee that held three days of hearings on Ige’s renomination of Espinda.

Nishihara, the committee chair, had launched an inquiry into DPS in February.

Senator Clarence Nishihara speaks in opposition to Nolan Espinda confirmation.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara speaks in opposition to Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda’s reconfirmation Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a letter to Espinda, Nishihara questioned why DPS had been slow to update law enforcement policies proposed by Sheriffs Division commanders. He also questioned the division’s training standards and safety equipment for sheriffs.

In a March response, Espinda said that updated polices were in the works, and the department would also be rolling out 96 new Sig M400 rifles to replace their outdated Colt AR-15s.

At a hearing April 9, Nishihara took aim at the department’s slow progress on acquiring accreditation for the Sheriffs Division. The department was required by law since 2011 to obtain credentials from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Baker said she was concerned about conditions at the state’s prisons and jails.

The West Maui senator tried repeatedly during hearings to extract information from Espinda and his department heads about the riot. But Deputy Attorney General Craig Iha sat next to Espinda and deflected many of the questions, citing ongoing investigations into the shootings and riots.

But some committee members said the department was not solely to blame for overcrowded jails.

Sen. Glenn Wakai said lawmakers also hold some responsibility and cited the Legislature’s reluctance to fund department requests for building improvements.

It’s also the job of the Legislature to take up criminal justice reform measures.

Nishihara, Baker and Wakai all voted “no,” along with Sens. Stanley Chang, Kai Kahele, Karl Rhoads, Gil Riviere and Breene Harimoto.

When he was brought in as department head in 2015, Espinda said he would end overtime and sick leave abuse while offering inmates more jail visits.

Espinda and his supporters have defended his job record during the session. Espinda has worked for DPS for three decades. Before becoming director, he was the warden at the Halawa Correctional Facility.

Espinda said during his tenure that the recidivism rate had decreased from 67% to 47%.

Also Wednesday, the Senate reconfirmed Suzanne Case as director and Robert Masuda as deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

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