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Hawai?i Senators Confirm Embattled Public Safety Director

Casey Harlow

State Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda was confirmed by the Hawai?i Senate Wednesday after critical remarks by several of his opponents.

Senators voted 17 to 8 in support of his confirmation.

Espinda, who was nominated by Gov. David Ige to continue as head of the Department of Public Safety, failed to win the backing of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs earlier this month but the full Senate had the final say.

Espinda has headed the public safety department since 2015. In recent months, the department has come under heavy scrutiny following an inmate riot at the Maui Community Correctional Center and the fatal shootings of two men by department personnel in separate incidents, including one at the state Capitol.

At a public safety committee hearing on April 9, senators attempted to get information about the prison disturbance and shooting, but senators were told by Ige's chief of staff, Ford Fuchigami, that Espinda was advised to withhold information on the events on the grounds it may jeopardize ongoing investigations.

Before the Senate voted, Espinda's opponents detailed their concerns about his leadership.

"I find the leadership vacuum at the Department of Public Safety because leadership has to come from the top. And the top is the director," said Baker. "Through his policies and procedures, I believe he has put both staff and inmates at risk.

"I find that Mr. Espinda lacks the leadership skills necessary to lead this very difficult department."

After his confirmation, Espinda says he's heard the criticisms, and plans to makes changes.

"They had significant objections -- all with merit. And that I not only need to listen to them, but also the people that brought those suggestions and recommendations," said Espinda. 

"As I've said during this process, no suggestion is out of line. And I believe that everything that was brought forward regarding the improvement of our system, regarding any contentious feelings or retaliation, needs to be addressed."

During a press conference, Governor David Ige told reporters the confirmation process highlighted the challenges facing the department and the state. 

"Obviously, the incidents in the past few weeks highlight some of those challenges," said Ige. "But as many (Senators) had said, they are not new -- they are in the system that we have been working to correct and improve over the course of the years."

Ige added that his administration, and Espinda, have been advocating for more resources and funding to add more bed capacity in state prisons.

Espinda's tenure as Director of the Department of Public Safety will last until 2022.

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