A Senate committee hammered state Department of Public Safety officials on a myriad of issues Tuesday, including two recent fatal shootings involving the department and a riot in March at the Maui Community Correctional Center.

The events have brought renewed scrutiny to the department as the Senate considers the renomination of Nolan Espinda by Gov. David Ige for another term as its director.

Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs members also focused on the department’s lack of accreditation for sheriffs, which it was ordered to obtain by the Legislature in 2011.

Department officials wouldn’t answer many questions regarding the shootings and jail riot under the advice of the state Attorney General’s office because they are still under investigation.

From left, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, Deputy Attorney General Craig Iha and Deputy Director for Law Enforcement Renee Sonobe-Hong address senators’ questions Tuesday. Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat

“We are facing a system that is in deep, deep rot,” said Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who chairs the committee.

Nishihara said at the close of the meeting that he would recommend the Senate vote against recommending Senate confirmation of Espinda’s renomination. The committee is scheduled to vote on the recommendation Thursday.

In January, 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.

One of the issues that drew particular criticism from Nishihara was the department’s failure to achieve accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Deputy Director for Law Enforcement Renee Sonobe-Hong, who was tasked with pursuing CALEA accreditation, said that the commission recommended the department get all its policies in place before applying for accreditation.

“Yes. I wish I could be faster. It’s my goal to be faster. I’ve heard it from the senators. I heard it from the governor. I heard it from my director. That’s exactly my goal,” Sonobe-Hong told the committee. “But that is the advice they have given.”

Public Safety Sheriff vehicle at the Capitol.
DPS has been under pressure to obtain accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, something it was ordered by the Legislature to do in 2011. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Espinda said the department made “absolutely no discernible or tangible progress” toward CALEA accreditation during the four years before he became director.

Sonobe-Hong said she would follow up with senators later this year on the department’s progress. Espinda previously said he hopes the department will get CALEA accreditation within the next two to three years.

Espinda said that when he became director, sheriffs were not required to attend in-service training. Now, he said, they must complete 40 hours a year of training that includes use of force and firearms recertification.

Espinda, who had a career as a warden before becoming director, said in retrospect he relied too much on the holdovers from the administration of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie to manage the law enforcement side of DPS since he only had work experience in the corrections side.

Tight-Lipped On Riot

The March riot at MCCC dominated much of the first hour of the hearing Tuesday. But while the senators had many questions, they didn’t get many answers.

Ford Fuchigami, the governor’s administrative director, told the committee that the department had been advised by the attorney general to not answer questions that might involve material under investigation by the department or other law enforcement agencies.

Deputy Attorney General Craig Iha sat next to Espinda throughout the hearing Tuesday and warned senators when their questions might be touching on that subject matter.

From left, Sens. Roz Baker, Clarence Nishihara and Breene Harimoto question DPS officials. Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat

Sen. Breene Harimoto said at one point in the hearing that the restrictions were making it hard for the lawmakers to do their jobs.

Nishihara asked for a timeline of events during the riot, but Espinda provided no new details.

“It’s hard to address the elephant in the room if you can’t address the elephant in the room,” Nishihara said.

Sen. Roz Baker, whose district covers South and West Maui, grilled Espinda on complaints and concerns she’s heard from employees at MCCC.

It’s been without a warden for three months. The job is currently filled by a temporary hire.

Espinda said there are 17 vacancies in the jail that has 167 positions. Baker said that workers there told her that staff numbered just around 120 on the day of the riot.

She said the department had made a concerted effort to cut staff to save money, but Espinda denied that.

Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda told senators Tuesday he’d improved training and labor issues during his tenure. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat

Baker also asked about an allegation that someone in the department had doctored reports related to MCCC’s compliance audit with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Espinda did not deny Baker’s allegation, but said the reports are available on the department’s website.

Baker said one comment from an MCCC staff member bothered her in particular.

“The staff told me they work with good people who follow the law. The problem is, people at the top don’t care,” she said. “There are just so many unanswered questions, director.”

Espinda said that he would do a better job of reaching out to employees in the future.

“I respect any expressions of the staff that went through this traumatic event. I would not sit here and contradict anything anyone said,” Espinda said. “I care deeply about my staff. It hurts me that anybody down the line would think that I don’t.”

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