A state Senate committee voted Thursday against reappointing Nolan Espinda director of the Department of Public Safety, citing last month’s riot at the Maui jail, recent shootings of an Oahu jail inmate and a homeless man, detention of prisoners beyond their release dates and an alleged culture of retaliation and intimidation within the department.
The vote by the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs is advisory but a clear sign that Espinda’s confirmation is in trouble. The full Senate is expected to take a decisive vote sometime next week on whether he will continue to lead the department.
The four Democratic senators on the committee voted in favor of Sen. Clarence Nishihara’s recommendation that Espinda not be reappointed. Sen. Kurt Fevella (Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), the lone Republican on the committee and in the Senate, also voted in favor of Nishihara’s recommendation, but did so by mistake, citing what he said were confusing statements by the chairman. He meant to vote in support of Espinda’s reappointment.
Espinda said after the hearing that he hoped to stay on and address senators’ concerns.
“I am humbled by the fact that so much constructive criticism has been provided,” he said. “With all that in mind, if given the opportunity, I am clearly and genuinely trying to address those situations.”
In voting against Espinda’s continuation as director of the Public Safety Department, senators cited a litany of problems within the state’s corrections system as well as within the Sheriffs Division.
Last month a riot broke out at the Maui Community Correctional Center when 42 inmates refused to return to their cells. The uprising, which took more than three hours to contain, caused more than $5.3 million in damage.
Just days prior to the riot, a 47-year-old inmate at the Oahu Community Correctional Center was fatally shot while trying to escape. And in February a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a a disabled homeless man outside the state Capitol.
The department also acknowledged recently that it had released nine inmates last year after discovering they had been held beyond their release dates. However, the department has refused to say who was over-detained and for how long. The department is also facing several lawsuits relating to inmates who say they were held too long.
Sen. Breene Harimoto (D, Pearl Harbor-Pearl City-Aiea) also said he was concerned by Espinda’s opposition to a proposed audit of the department last year.
In testimony to the Legislature, Espinda wrote that the department opposed “the kind of weaponization of the auditor’s office this bill represents.”
But Harimoto said that “this was just a run-of-the-mill request for an audit.”
“This kind of testimony is inappropriate for any department,” said Harimoto. “Perhaps it illustrates why so many of the employees are complaining to us about the work environment and why they are afraid to speak up.”
Senators also took issue with what Espinda has cited as improvements within the department. He noted that he had significantly reduced overtime among guards, but Sen. Roz Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui) said that in the process of doing so, Espinda had created an unsafe work environment.
Espinda said he had increased visitation for inmates. But Nishihara, who chairs the committee, suggested Espinda was counting teleconferencing as visitation.
“I do not consider that a visitation,” said Nishihara. “That would be like saying the doctor saw me, but I called him and that was enough. I don’t consider that an invitation to have those contacts that are necessary.”
Nishihara (D, Waipahu-
Pearl City) also criticized Espinda for not ensuring that the Sheriffs Division obtained law enforcement accreditation known as CALEA, something held by all the county police departments. He noted earlier this week that the department hadn’t even put in its application, despite pressure from the Legislature since 2010.
Ultimately, Baker said
Espinda lacked the skills needed to lead the department.
“I think it’s not the right time to continue this kind of leadership,” she said. “I know this is a tough department, but I believe that we’ve heard enough from people on the inside who are working there and people who are working and trying to evaluate from the outside to say that we cannot continue with this kind of leadership. We need a change. We need some cleaning out.”
Not all the senators on the committee were comfortable with the criticism of Espinda.
Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Salt Lake-Aliamanu) voted along with Nishihara’s recommendation that Espinda not be reconfirmed, but with reservations. He and Fevella criticized the Legislature for not giving Espinda the tools and funding needed to be successful.
“If public safety is truly something that the public should be concerned about, then we should fund it and then have the expectations of meeting all of these various mandates,” said Wakai. “But to subject you to expectations that are to be 100 percent solid when we give you 20 percent of the resources you need to do that job, to me that is troublesome.”
In particular, Espinda has pushed for new or expanded jail facilities throughout the state since becoming director of the department. All of the state’s jails have been severely overcrowded for years, but the Legislature hasn’t provided the necessary construction funding to relocate the Oahu jail and has been inconsistent in supporting the relocation of the Maui jail to a new and bigger facility.
Following the Maui riot, Espinda cited overcrowded conditions as a cause.
Asked after the hearing whether he felt that the Legislature had given the department adequate resources, Espinda struck a diplomatic tone.
“I think that money is tight and priorities around the state are what they are, and their role is to play the role that they do. My role is to lobby for my department and the needs of my department,” said Espinda. “I think that I’m always given a fair chance to do that, and I think that the moneys that are allocated by the Legislature are done with their priorities in mind, and I respect that.”