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City Prosecutor Steve Alm On Tackling Crime, Police Investigations

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka
/

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm just marked 100 days in office. He talked to The Conversation about how his office will investigate fatal shootings by police and new efforts to strengthen anti-crime “weed and seed” programs.

The prosecutor’s office will conduct investigations into recent police shootings in which a 29-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy were killed, Alm said last week.

Three separate teams from his office will independently look at both cases, he said Tuesday.

Previously, the Honolulu Police Department investigated all shootings by officers and sent findings to prosecutors, a process that could take more than a year, Alm said.

“There's no question the Honolulu Police Department has many investigators that can investigate all of these crimes. I have no reason to doubt they didn't do a good job in the last 20 years of investigating those,” Alm told the Conversation.

“And I'm not saying the prior prosecutors did not do a good job of reviewing that. But when you have the agency that's involved in the shooting doing the investigation, there are always going to be questions in people's minds about the outcome and whether it's suspect or not,” Alm said.

He said the police department has been very cooperative in sending information about the case.

In an ideal world, he said an agency completely separate from state and local prosecutors and the police would conduct the investigation.

“There is no such operation at present, and nothing on the horizon,” he said.

Starting his position on the heels of Keith Kaneshiro and the Kealoha corruption scandal, he said a top priority is restoring trust in his office and in the Honolulu Police Department.

Alm also talked about the “Weed and Seed” program to fight crime and build communities.

Weeding entails stopping violent crime at the source, while seeding entails restoring neighborhood trust through social services and outreach.

"The seed part has always been around but I always thought if I ever get back in a position to do it again, I will certainly try to resurrect the whole complement of things," he said.

Revitalizing the Weed and Seed program in the Kalihi-Palama-Chinatown area is on his list, he said.

This story aired on The Conversation on May 4, 2021.

Interview Highlights

On the beginnings of Weed and Seed

When I was U.S. Attorney, I kind of led the effort working with Maile Kanemaru and many people in the community--right, nobody gets anything done by themselves. It's all working together, HPD, all the law enforcement but then all the social service agencies and the like. But when I left as U.S. Attorney, it didn't get the attention. In essence, the seed part has always been there. And in fact, they made a 501(c)(3), there's a Weed and Seed board now. But to get Weed and Seed you need to have both weed and seed. You know, the seed part has always been around but I always thought if I ever get back in a position to do it again, I will certainly try to resurrect the whole complement of things and so we are looking at getting the weed component back working with the seed and reinvigorating it in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown.

And part of the model is you talk to the community about issues. I live in Kaimuki, so I don't know exactly, so when we had, the first time, stew and rice at Kaiulani Elementary School and we asked the folks there and they said, "Well, you're the expert," I said, "What crime problems do you have? What social services do you think you could benefit from?" They said, "Well, you're the expert." I said, "Yeah, but I don't live here."

And so they raised the open drug dealing on Pua Lane, which is a big concern. But they also said people speed up and down Pua Lane getting between King Street and Vineyard and we're not gonna let our kids play outside because they'll chase a ball into the street and get run over. So in the space of two weeks, the City Council put up speed humps on Pua Lane, cheap, but it solved the problem that they identified. Now, with COVID, we can't have those kinds of community meetings. So we're really fortunate that some banks and some other folks are getting together, and a survey's going to be done in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown in the next several weeks. So residents and businesses can identify issues, problems and the like. And that will help us inform exactly, you know what we're going to do what we'll attack what we'll go after.

On a possible Weed and Seed program in Waikiki

Waikiki would be a natural, we've got to go back to where we started first (Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown), but Waikiki would be a natural. And, you know, that is the center of sex trafficking. And our office is really stepping up our efforts on that--teenage girls and boys getting involved in sex trafficking--because the visitor industry is made, you know, to facilitate that. And the visitor industry is very helpful in trying to do work in helping to stamp that out. And our part of that role is prosecuting pimps for getting girls and boys--75% are teenage girls and 25% are teenage boys. But I'd say the runaway girls are the most vulnerable population. And so we're working with all the components whether it's Susannah Wesley, whether it's Ho’?la N? Pua, who just opened their 30-bed facility for teenage girls as a place to pull them out of the business, a place to live and heal and get the counseling they need. And my guess is every runaway teenage boy and girl on this island at some point is in Waikiki. So eventually, if we're able to expand this kind of effort to Waikiki, that would be a real important focus of it at the same time.

On investigations into fatal shootings by the Honolulu Police Department

The message is that the prosecutor's office in the past would wait for the Honolulu Police Department to do their entire investigation and then they would send over their reports for the prosecutors to review. That process often took more than a year. And I thought, you know, we can do a lot better than that. So we are now involved in investigating both of those which are officer-involved shootings of civilians. And we are now investigating both cases, the police have been very cooperative. They sent over all the evidence, the body-worn cameras, the police reports, all the rest of it. I've set up separate teams, and three of them, to be looking independently at each of those. Now, there's no question the Honolulu Police Department has many investigators, they can investigate all of these crimes, I have no reason to doubt they didn't do a good job in the last 20 years of investigating those. And I'm not saying the prosecutors, prior prosecutors, did not do a good job of reviewing that. But when you have the agency that's involved in the shooting doing the investigation, there are always going to be questions in people's minds about the outcome and whether it's suspect or not. And so we will be working with them. We've gotten their information, but we will do an independent review of it.

And at the same time, in an ideal world, there would be a totally separate agency to do this investigation, not answerable to the state attorney general not answerable to the Honolulu prosecutor, not answerable to the U.S. Attorney's Office... made up of experienced prosecutors who've done a lot of homicide cases, made up of experienced investigators. But both groups would have to be current on techniques and trial strategies.

There is no such operation at present and nothing on the horizon. You know, there was a group, the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, but they are not equipped to do this. They don't do original investigations, they review reports. They're volunteers. The place where you have people that have done the most homicides that are prepared to do it is this office.

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