Here's how the Honolulu prosecuting attorney is addressing crime in Chinatown, Waikīkī
Oʻahu has seen some violent crimes in the first few months of 2022. Some people have chalked it up to more guns on the street or mental health problems. Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm joined The Conversation to discuss efforts to address violent crime and homelessness, particularly in Waikīkī.
STEVE ALM: There certainly have been a number of violent crimes, including gun crimes, and that's really disturbing. We're working closely with the Honolulu Police Department to identify who the perpetrators are, hold them accountable — and working with HPD to identify where did the guns come from. Hawaiʻi historically is in the bottom 10 nationally for violent crime, and one of the very lowest for gun crimes. We are always in the top five for property crimes — partly that's tourist destination, and the like. Our big meth problem, I think, contributes to that. But there's no question, the cases have been really violent. But I'm a big person looking at data and research to drive criminal justice policy — and it'll be interesting to see. We're hoping that because 2020 and 2021 appear to be lower numbers because of COVID. You know, if businesses are closed, you're not going to have as many shoplifting cases. If people are home, maybe fewer burglaries. If there are some, they may become home invasions. But the overall numbers between 2019 and 2020 were down by 30% overall. Your neighborhood may have been higher. And if you personally were the victim of a crime, none of these stats matter. But what we will be looking very carefully is to see, is crime going up? It may well be going up, but is it going up to pre-pandemic levels? Or is it worse? And is this the new normal? We're hoping like heck that it's not.
CATHERINE CRUZ, HOST: And we have yet to get the latest numbers for 2021.
ALM: Correct, let alone 2022. But that's important to look at. And I think when the Honolulu Police Department major in Waikīkī was asked about this recently, and it was in the paper, he said, well, the numbers are higher than they were last year, but they're lower than or comparable to pre-pandemic times. So I think we're strategizing with HPD. I think they're gonna have a bigger police presence at certain places in Waikīkī. We're trying to charge people with felonies as much as possible. And then the next step is convincing the judges to send the violent ones to prison. I ran with this office to restore trust in the prosecutor's office after all the corruption and other problems, but part of that is keeping people safe. That's my number one job. And so the violent and dangerous and the ones who absolutely won't stop stealing, need to go to prison, you know, Halawa or the mainland. They should get classes there. They should get rehabilitated there, but they might need to be removed from society for a while. And I think that's important.
CRUZ: I think the headlines this year were particularly distressing because not only were there cases where a violent crime occurred, but the weapons were in hands of basically teens.
ALM: Yeah, we did have a couple of 19-year-olds involved. And yeah, instead of a fistfight, it went to firearms, which is much more deadly — and some horrific cases. We have had horrific cases in the past. I remember that when I first started at the prosecutor's office, there was a guy in a bar and a woman that touched his Godzilla doll. And he basically stomped her to death and was charged with murder. That was a horrific crime at the time. He was convicted of manslaughter, unfortunately not murder. Not to minimize anything about what's going on today, but we have always had some horrific crimes. It appears now there just seem to be a lot at the same time.
CRUZ: If somebody's using a gun to try and rob somebody up at Tantalus Lookout and the other person pulls a gun out, I mean, gosh, you just don't expect that. Especially when we're talking about teens.
ALM: And that's partly why we're trying to work with HPD to identify where did these guns come from — you know, legally purchased. It seems unlikely that somebody who goes through the process of applying to HPD for a weapon and getting their name and registering it to them, it seems unlikely that they themselves would be using that in a crime. On the other hand, somebody in their household may have gotten a hold of it, or it could have been stolen in a burglary. That's why we really encourage homeowners who have firearms at home to lock them in a safe. It helps in many ways, it helps to keep them from getting stolen in a burglary. It also reduces suicide because the longer it takes — if it's right at hand, instant, impulse stuff can happen, or little kids playing with it and shooting another little kid, which is horrendous for everybody. So we do ask that, but my feeling is it's unlikely a person who is a law-abiding citizen, a registered owner who gets a firearm and follows through the procedures, they're unlikely to use it themselves out there on somebody else.
CRUZ: As we see the stories about these violent crimes, some say it's mental health issues, some say it's guns, gambling, but let's focus on Chinatown. We've seen some bad things happen there and there's a renewed effort, the whole Weed and Seed Program. So talk about what we're doing there.
ALM: There have been, that horrific case where a man's clothes were set on fire and he was badly burned. Chinatown has always been a violent, dangerous place. That's why it was picked for Weed and Seed. You don't go to Mānoa or you don't go to Kāhala to do that kind of program. It needs to be in a place where there's a lot of crime going on. And so we are working very closely with HPD. And Chinatown honestly looks a lot better than it used to. And I got a great letter from Bishop (Larry) Silva (head of the Catholic Churchʻs Diocese of Honolulu), thanking us for all of our efforts. It is a team effort, it's a collaboration — but saying the parishioners at Our Lady of Peace cathedral can now go in peace and are not harassed either going to church or coming out of church. The job isn't done, but it's a lot safer. It's a lot cleaner. And part of that is the homeless thing. There were fewer crimes this time than the last time we did Weed and Seed 20 years ago, but the homeless problem is much worse, and the mental health issues. And I congratulate HPD because they're the ones out there patrolling, they're the ones out there arresting people. I thank Mayor Rick Blangiardi for all of their efforts and Anton Krucky (director of the city's Department of Community Services and previously director for the Office of Housing and Homelessness), moving River of Life is a huge help to the neighborhood. And there are a number of people with mental health issues. And if they can get fed right there, they're going to stay there and often throw their foodstuffs or the packaging around. But they have made a real commitment to Chinatown and the whole Weed and Seed effort is doing really well. One of the things we were convinced of is — and the homeless are not a monolithic group, you have husbands and wives who have lost their jobs, they've stayed with relatives, now they're living in their car and maybe their kids — they would jump at a chance to go to housing and get a job. We're talking about people sleeping on the sidewalk on Maunakea Street, or on Pauahi, we are convinced almost all of them have mental health or drug and alcohol problems or both.
CRUZ: So what are we doing there? And is it working?
ALM: What we're doing is we set up a program called SUDA-Fast, stands for Substance Use Disorder Assessment - Fast. This is getting everybody organized, it's the intake service center at the jail and Max Otani is easy to work with, he's open to new stuff, he's the head of the Department of Public Safety. So the jail, it's the Hawaiʻi Department of Health, and it's all the treatment programs, public defenders, prosecutors. So more than 100 homeless people have been arrested in Chinatown for felonies, almost all drug possession. And what we're doing now is getting them assessed and then the Department of Health to try to line up which is the most appropriate program for them in the community, whether it's Hina Mauka, whether it's Poʻailani, whether it's Salvation Army ATS, whoever it is, and then an order will be cut, we'll stipulate with the public defenders, and they will get picked up at O'ahu Community Correctional Center by Department of Health and taken into the program. Now we have already screened out if they have a really violent history or the like, we're going to try to send them to prison. But that's a rarity among the homeless in Chinatown, and maybe in other places. So the whole idea is: do this at the front end. Because otherwise, what happens if a homeless person gets arrested, say for drug possession, which is a felony, he or she, if the judge releases them soon, they're gonna go right back to the street, but maybe to a different place. But if they stay in custody, it's going to wait until they end up with a plea, plead guilty. And then the public defender individually will try to help them get into a program. That is months and months down the road. And so this is at the front end, and then by the time sentencing comes up, they're already in treatment. And they're helping themselves because we're trying to not just get them off the street, but help them stay off the street. You know, and there's a lot of voluntary efforts, the HONU program that HPD does, the CORE program that Anton Krucky and the city are doing. Those are great if people voluntarily take advantage of those. The problem is a lot of the homeless will not take advantage of voluntary programs.
CRUZ: And we're hearing calls that folks may want to see a Weed and Seed Program possibly in Waikīkī because we've had some cases of note recently, possibly mental health. If robbery is not the motive, why lash out at a kūpuna walking the streets? So what can you tell us about Waikīkī?
ALM: Well, when I was the United States Attorney, that's when we started working with everybody doing Weed and Seed. And when I left, my successor did not really want to follow through with it and neither did the city prosecutor at the time. So the weed part died out. The seed part kept going, both there and in the other two sites, Waipahu, including the Pupu Street area and ʻEwa, ʻEwa Beach. But to get the full thing, you need Weed and Seed — they work together, they help each other, they make it stronger. So the weed part died out, the seed part kept going. So kind of simultaneously, we're going to be picking up the weed part again in ʻEwa, ʻEwa Beach. Local people deserve to be safe. And whether it's Waipahu, whether it's ʻEwa, whether it's ʻEwa Beach, there are problems, crime problems there, we can work with HPD to help that. At the same time, there is a lot of interest in Waikīkī. So we're starting the conversation with residents, businesses, workers in Waikīkī because they know their area the best. That's happening this month. When Weed and Seed started in Kalihi-Palama, in Chinatown, we had stew and rice at Kaʻiulani Elementary School. And I'd asked the residents and the people that came to the meeting, you know, what are your big crime problems? They said, "Well, you're the expert." I said, "Yeah, but I live in Kaimukī. I don't live here. You know this area the best, tell us." So they said, "Well, there are those drug dealers on Pua Lane." And that we knew about, but they also said, "People speed up and down Pua Lane getting between King Street and Vineyard, we're not going to let our kids play outside. They'll chase a ball into the street and get run over." And so we talked to the Honolulu City Council and the city council, to their benefit, probably Jon Yoshimura led the effort, put up speed humps in like two weeks, and that slowed the traffic down there to this day. Talk about an innovative, quick intervention, cheap, that we from the outside never would have thought of.
CRUZ: So at the end of this month, there will be a town hall meeting to talk about this with a council member from that area?
ALM: Right, and representatives, the police department, other folks, Anton Krucky, with some ideas for helping Waikīkī. And so for the Weed and Seed, it's getting feedback, starting the process of getting feedback from the residents.
CRUZ: The goal of the Weed and Seed Program is to control violent crime and drug-related crime. That virtual town meeting in Waikīkī is tentatively set for May 26 starting at 6 p.m. The city tells us there will be more details and publicity as we get closer to that date.
This interview aired on The Conversation on May 3, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.