Q&A With Will Espero: True Reform ‘Takes A Champion' - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

The former senator battled for years to finally create boards to monitor law enforcement. But with the state’s lack of follow through, sometimes even hard-fought victories are diluted.

Will Espero served in the Hawaii Legislature 19 years, the last 16 of them in the Senate where his signature issue was police reform. He left the Senate in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor.

In a Civil Beat interview that has been edited for length and clarity, Espero talked about his time in office and what has become of his reform efforts. He also discussed the current push for more transparency and accountability in the Legislature.

You pushed hard for police reform during your time in the Legislature, and you were really instrumental in getting the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board created in 2017 and the Law Enforcement Standards Board created in 2018. Those were long battles over multiple sessions. Why did you put so much effort into those issues?

I was the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, so naturally those issues would come to my committee, and I had an interest in them because I did feel that we needed some changes and positive reforms — when you see what was going on nationally with some of these episodes of police brutality and abuse.

It was important that Hawaii looked at these issues and made certain that we could have the best law enforcement agencies that policymakers can create. So yeah, that’s why I did look at that and I’m happy with what we did.

What would you say led to the breakthroughs that finally got those two boards established?

In the Legislature, sometimes it’s just a matter of time. If you have a a good idea, people want to hear about it. People want to learn more details if possible. And if it’s something that the public also supports, lawmakers will listen.

In some instances, we had the police unions against some of the reforms. And that in itself may have scared some lawmakers, or at least made them pause. But at the end of the day, I’d like to think that lawmakers saw that this was something that was very important for our state and our nation, and they realized that Hawaii needs to step up because in the case of the standards board, for example, you know, we were one of the few states that didn’t have one.

When you look at the different counties, for example, there are different policies and I felt that we must have a statewide standards board.

The mechanism is in place now, but the people involved are too slow. And I hope and wish that the lawmakers will push the individuals to come up with a draft and a plan as soon as possible so that we can continue to move forward.

Then-Sens. Will Espero, left, and Josh Green talk on the Senate floor. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018)

Yes, even though it was established in 2017, the standards board didn’t really get funded until last year. And it’s not expected to do its job of establishing the basic standards and minimum qualifications for a certification until next year. Meanwhile, the other one, the independent review board, has sunsetted. So overall, are you a little disappointed?

Oh, definitely. Sometimes it takes a champion and a strong advocate in the Legislature to push bills through, and it appears there are not too many of those champions or advocates right now in the Legislature.

Yes, everybody will tell you we need police reform. But there are multiple issues out there and, you know, if this one doesn’t rise to your level of importance or as a top priority, you know, it may not get the attention one wants it to get.

The (Honolulu) prosecutor for what it’s worth, Steve Alm, has been active and aggressive, in my opinion, in looking at some of these incidents involving police. But he’s one man and he’s been in the system for a long time and he understands how things are. And of course he has his own point of view on how things should be.

But you need to have people with passion pushing for these issues. And in this case, there’s still a need for someone to really be a strong, consistent champion on police reform.

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It seems like these are both examples of the battle not being over when you finally get what you’ve been pushing for through the Legislature, because so often what they set up and what they actually follow through on is not the same.

Correct. And like I said, it’s just a matter of getting the right people in the right places and the right positions. And, and as a lawmaker, you have to advocate not only with constituents and unions and business people and others, but you have to advocate with your lawmakers themselves.

Police reform, you know, it’s taking baby steps, but I think the verdict is still out yet on what will happen.

You know, when you look at the (Makaha) incident where the police officer accidentally hit the vehicle, right? The vehicle went out of control, crashed. People were seriously injured. The police drove away almost like a hit-and-run. And then they came back and said, “What’s going on?” As if they didn’t know. At least those are the allegations from what I’ve read and heard. Look how long it took for that case to get to the point where it is today. Yeah, if I’m correct over two years or so. And, you know, that’s just unacceptable.

When you look at what just happened on the mainland within the last six months where police officers are fired within a few weeks, you know that that’s action and that that’s leadership, in my opinion. But sometimes the wheels move slowly in our state. But that’s not cause to give up.

After a series of high-profile scandals, including the bribery convictions of two former legislators, there’s a push for reforms to make Hawaii government in general, the Legislature in particular, more transparent and accountable. How do you feel about that?

The bribery cases were shocking. I worked closely with (Sen. J. Kalani) English and with (Rep. Ty) Cullen, and yeah, I was stunned. But I guess I wasn’t surprised from the perspective that you know that it could happen.

It’s really just a matter of, I don’t know if you can really legislate anything, it’s because that’s a really personal decision to do something that is criminal, which is what they did. They broke the law. They knew it was wrong, and yet something within them made them decide to carry on and think that they could get away with it.

Do you think that they’re the exceptions, or that they just are the ones who got caught?

Well, I’d like to believe that it’s not prevalent in the Legislature. I think all legislators run with the intent of doing good for their communities, helping their neighborhoods, helping and wanting to improve the quality of life in the state of Hawaii.

Senator Will Espero during a Hawaii Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force meeting at the Hawaii State Capitol on September 9, 2014.
Former Sen. Will Espero in his trademark cap was at the center of numerous public safety issues during his time in the Legislature. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014)

And somewhere along the way power goes to their head, because both of these individuals were in influential positions. I do know that with power and authority, people can be impacted negatively when you have others who may be stoking the fire and giving them ideas. And that’s what happened here.

The Foley Commission made a lot of recommendations, and there are other proposed reforms, we call them sunshine bills, in the Legislature this session. How do you feel about those in general?

From what I’m hearing, some things are moving forward, but maybe weakening a little so they’re not as strong as good-government advocates want. But, you know, anything that passes is a positive step. And we’ll see at the end of the day what passes and what doesn’t. But legislators need to find a way to police themselves better if they’re not going to put it into law and codify it.

So that’s where the Senate leadership, the House leadership, and their colleagues need to think about what their job is and make certain that it’s done properly.

There are these bills that try to change laws, but of course there are also the rules of the Legislature and just the processes that they follow that you got a close look at for a long time. If you could propose reforms, rule changes or law changes, what would they be?

A lot of people want term limits, but obviously most lawmakers don’t want to pass term limits at this stage.

It’s a time when great things can happen, and it’s also a time when great disappointment can occur as well.

I thought of an idea that, instead of your standard eight-year term limit, why don’t you do a hybrid of 12 years or 16 years in the House, 12 years or 16 years in the Senate? Some people might laugh at this and say, “Hey, there’s still somebody in office for 24 years or more.”

But when you’re limiting their time there, you’re also limiting their titles and their positions. And that’s where a lot of the power lies in the hands of people in leadership, whether you’re leading a caucus or a body, or whether you’re leading the committee.

And so that’s a hybrid that would let people know you’ve got a certain amount of time and you want people in there for a certain amount of time because there’s a learning curve as well. And, you don’t catch on in the first year or two. Sometimes it takes a few years. And then because of the nature of the legislative system, sometimes, as in police reform, it takes a few years to get things passed.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama met with state Sen. Will Espero and about 50 other Democratic lawmakers from across the country as part of his push for the Democratic agenda — including the reform of the criminal justice system — at the state level. (Courtesy: Will Espero)

A couple of legislators have mentioned the idea of term limits for leadership positions — Senate president, House speaker — and for committee chairs.What do you think of that idea?

Well that is possible, but I don’t think you would legislate that.

It would have to be a rule change, right?

Yeah. It could happen if you could find 13 senators that say, “Hey, I think it’s a good idea,” and 26 representatives, right? So something like that is possible, but you need an advocate, and you need someone to step up and show some leadership.

Now, there’ll be some people that say, yeah, but what if someone is a great chairman and there are no complaints and everybody likes him or her. Well, that’s fine, but rules are rules, and if it’s going to improve the overall quality of work and the system, then then it should be there.

But again, it’s a good idea if you can get the lawmakers to agree on it. You know how group dynamics are, and sometimes it’s a matter of who’s the loudest or who’s the most persistent, or whatever the case may be. And I don’t want to say this, but sometimes there is bullying involved in some of the back-door conversations.

The power lies with the people who don’t want to change the system.

Correct. And maybe sometimes it’ll be something that’s generational, who knows? But enough of the lawmakers have to be fed up with the current system in order to want to change it. And if that’s not the case, you won’t see the change.

What do you remember about the conference committee process from your time in the Legislature?

It’s a time when great things can happen, and it’s also a time when great disappointment can occur as well.

A lot obviously happens behind closed doors because they’re not subject to the Sunshine Law that applies to county councils and other legislative bodies.

It really comes down, doesn’t it, to the committee chairs in terms of the negotiations and deciding the fate of a lot of legislation?

Well, it’s true that the chairs do hold the reins, but if the committee members feel strongly about a position, they can influence the chair. And if that committee member can get other members to support them, they can influence the chair.

The power of the people is much stronger than than many realize.

So we shouldn’t just look at the members as if they’re rubber-stamping the decision. There is an art to passing bills. You know, you don’t just throw things in the air and see which way the wind is blowing. There is an art to lawmaking. And in a democracy and a society you have countless special interests and advocates. The chairs are not just doing what they want, they need to have an understanding of what’s going on out there.

The last thing that lawmakers want, every single one of them, I don’t think anyone will deny this, is negative publicity. They don’t want people in their face in a way that is negative, that is condescending.

The power of the people is much stronger than than many realize. If you bombard a lawmaker with 1,000 emails or 500 emails or 100 emails, they will know that somebody out there is making noise and has an opinion on something. If you have 50 people go into an office and say they want to talk with the lawmaker, here’s our opinion, the lawmaker will know they’re there.

If you call a lawmaker and leave 100 messages, they will listen and they’ll say, “What’s going on?”

You’ve been out of the Legislature for a few years now. Other than the campaigns for lieutenant governor and City Council, what have you been up to?

Well, I’ve written two novels and, and I’m about to launch my second novel, which is a sequel to the first novel, “Passion in Paradise.” The sequel is “Vengeance in Paradise.” They’re stories involving business, politics, romance and a lot of drama in the state of Hawaii.

I might even have a column in a little newspaper soon where I hope to just write about current events and just make sure people are still thinking and watching and keeping an eye on the things that impact our state and our nation.

I’m keeping all my options open. People ask me, “Are you going to run for office again?” And I do say I have no intention to run for office again, but what I’ve learned is that you never say never.

So I’m still, I’m watching and I’m seeing what the policymakers and decision-makers are doing, and hopefully everything’s going well so that I can just enjoy my retirement.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

You know when Espero took place at the State Capital, 16 yrs ago, I can remember him basically saying the same thing, and it has yet to happen . True Reform is going to take Unity of both parties and agreeing on things that is for the better of the people of Hawaii and until some effort to make the Unity happen and until then there is no other way to have a true "Champion"

unclebob61 · 7 months ago

Public safety reform may be what former Senator Espero is well known for. That's because he was open to the media and got the media to lay things out to the public. However, if it is about the art of legislation, the CB might want to extend the storytelling to Espero's first year as chair the Senate committee on housing. As recorded in a 2018 CB article, Espero was looking for a 'big, bold and audacious ' measure. He steered forward what has since been dubbed the "Nakata" bill that put $200M for affordable rental housing. To Espero's point about legislators listening to the public, the late Rev. Bob Nakata had a hole on the sole of his leather shoe for tirelessly walking the hallways of the Capitol and knocking on legislators' doors. Nakata did all he can to get legislators to listen. He went on to endorsed Espero in the latter's bid for Lt. Governor for he knew that it took leadership, like Espero's, to get things done.

Ca · 7 months ago

Great interview.

Valerie · 7 months ago

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