Image Source: Department of Land and Natural Resources
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -
The state's Land Board has approved a request to provide additional assault rifles and shotguns to conservation officers.
The officers are already armed, but officials say the additional weaponry is needed for higher-risk situations, such as marijuana eradication raids or dealing with confrontational poachers and illegal hunters.
"We have to have similar capabilities or better capabilities than the bad guy so that we can protect the public and increase our officer safety," said Jason Redulla, the acting enforcement chief of the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.
The Land Board approved the request unanimously Friday morning, but not without raising questions about the militarization of law enforcement and concerns about appropriate use.
DOCARE officers are charged with protecting, conserving and managing natural, cultural and historic resources in the state.
The division was thrust into the headlines this year following clashes with those protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. DOCARE officers participated in crowd control and made arrests, alongside Hawaii County police, because of their mandate to protect conservation areas -- including Mauna Kea.
While many typically think of conservation officers as similar to game wardens, Redulla says their role is more comparable to that of a police officer, marine patrol agent, and ranger -- all rolled into one.
"What we're asking for today is weaponry that is very common in law enforcement throughout the United States and here in Hawaii," said Redulla.
The state Land Board vote provides DOCARE with $57,350 to buy 20 semi-automatic rifles and ten 12-gauge shotguns.
"What we're asking for is equipment that's already in our inventory. This is not new or unique. What we're asking for is more weapons to provide this capability to all our officers statewide," Redulla clarified.
Redulla says all his officers are already carrying a government-issued 40-caliber Glock, but not all agents have access to rifles or shotguns.
He says the board's approval ensures the safety of every DOCARE officer -- many of whom patrol large, remote areas on their own -- and can't readily call for backup should a situation escalate.
"Law enforcement is a very unpredictable, very uncertain and dangerous world and so we would rather have the tool and not need it, then need it and not have it," said Redulla.
Opponents of the proposal, though, say increasing weaponry actually undermines safety.
"Even President Obama in his reflections on the Ferguson situation recognized that when we militarize law enforcement - we escalate the conflicts in a way that doesn't result in good outcomes," said Marti Townsend, the Sierra Club of Hawaii director.
"We saw heightened escalation on Mauna Kea, when there didn't need to be and I'm concerned that now that this is the 'new normal' that every DOCARE officer is going to have these kind of assault weapons that we're going to have a new normal of heightened escalation and that doesn't serve anyone."
"I'm disappointed. I see the mission of the DOCARE officers to be primarily natural resources protection . We actually don't want to create a situation where DOCARE officers are in a position to shoot somebody - that's not the ideal outcome," said Townsend.
DOCARE officials say their officers have some of the best firearms training in the state -- something board members underscored the need for before deciding to provide the additional guns.
One thing both sides agree on is that DOCARE would benefit more from increasing its staff, rather than increasing its weaponry.
Offficials say there are currently 100 DOCARE officers statewide and there are about 8 vacant positions right now.
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