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Honolulu prosecuting attorney on balancing crime enforcement and outreach

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm speaks at a press conference for the Safe and Sound Waikiki initiative on Sept. 6, 2022.
Honolulu City Council
Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm speaks at a press conference for the Safe and Sound Waikiki initiative on Sept. 6, 2022.

Identifying crime and prosecuting criminals is only one part in working to make an area safer, according to Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm.

He said that addressing the issues, getting people help and offering outreach are just as important.

"You talk to residents, you find out what the problems are and then you get law enforcement organized to address the criminal justice problems and try to keep the streets and everything safer," Alm said.

Alm took part in the creation of the Chinatown Weed and Seed program in the '90s, where the concept was that officials must weed, or eliminate, crime while also seeding, or adding, community engagement.

When he returned to office in 2021, he wanted to get the program back up and running. Now, Alm is helping lead Safe and Sound Waikīkī, a strategy program to deter criminal activity and get those committing crimes help.

"You've got bars, you've got restaurants, you've got alleyways, you've got a reputation as a place that has been troubled for some time. But that's why it was picked as the weed and seed site," Alm said.

But Alm said the issues have become much deeper.

"We've discovered many of them have substance abuse problems, so unless you deal with that underlying problem, it's not going to stop," Alm said.

Last week, the Honolulu Police Department reported that crime is down in the area from 2021 to 2022. HPD Deputy Chief Keith Horikawa said that’s in part due to the department’s Chinatown Task Force, which received additional funding from the city to continue work through the end of this year.

"Most notable was the overwhelming decrease in the multiple crime statistics, including 64% decrease in the number of miscellaneous crimes reported, and also 55% decrease in the reported drug in narcotic cases," Horikawa said. "And also 32% decrease in the number of the property damage cases reported."

Safe and Sound Waikīkī acts as a counterpart to the Weed and Seed program in the state’s premier tourism destination. From its start in September through the end of last year, Alm reported more than 450 arrests, mostly misdemeanors.

"We decided Waikīkī is a natural place for this kind of a strategy," he said.

However, it wouldn’t be complete without community engagement.

A group wearing bright, neon yellow and green polo shirts roam Waikīkī on any given day, hoping to provide help to those in need.

"We are the Waikīkī Aloha ambassadors, a lot of us are well known for the crew that is out on the street 365 days a year," Waikiki Business Improvement District Executive Director Jennifer Nakayama said.

Nakayama started with the group in 2017 as its executive director, overseeing the nonprofit’s cleaning and outreach programs and connecting with local businesses.

BID’s model began in the late '90s, and is funded through extra taxes on commercial businesses in the area. That money then goes to coordinators and teams that power wash sidewalks or sweep up the streets.

They also help those who are homeless get better access to services, like finding housing or second-chance job opportunities.

"The newer programs like Safe and Sound Waikīkī are a perfect example of a private public partnership and how we can look at public safety, homelessness, crime reduction, all of those things all rolled up into one overall program," she said.

In the coming year, the Waikīkī BID will hire a Safe and Sound coordinator with $100,000 from the Kosasa Foundation and city funds.

"What this person is going to do is organize different opportunities, so again, trying to truncate that pipeline of what could lead somebody back to a life of crime or a youth that may be looking at contemplating a life of crime," Nakayama said.

Sabrina Bodon was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter.
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