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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, February 7, 2003

Camera trouble hinders crime fight

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

ABOVE: The corner of Smith and North King streets is among 26 areas in Chinatown with closed-circuit cameras to monitor criminal activity.

BELOW: The camera can zoom in and out, rotate 360 degrees and look straight down.

Photos by Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Every Tuesday night as members of the downtown Citizens Patrol walk the area's narrow streets, they stop in at the police substation at North Hotel and Maunakea streets to check on the closed-circuit camera operation that is used to monitor criminal activity. On Tuesday only three of 26 cameras could even be turned on.

"We always ask how many are working," said Dolores Mollring, a Downtown Neighborhood Board member who walks with the patrol.

"It is depressing when you think it is a weapon to fight crime. There is a lot of crime going on."

More than four years ago the city spent $400,000 to install 26 closed-circuit cameras on the streets of Chinatown, counting on them as a great crime-fighting tool, helping to catch criminal activity on tape for use as evidence in court. And they have proved effective in a number of cases in the high-crime area plagued by drugs and prostitution.

The cameras are mounted on utility poles. A camera operator watching a video monitor at a police substation can zoom in and out, rotate a camera 360 degrees and even look straight down — when they are working.

Police and others familiar with the cameras say the system has been unreliable for about three years and they never know how many cameras will be operable.

"Some months mostly all the cameras are up and some months very few are up," said Maj. Michael Tucker, the Honolulu Police Department's District 1 commander.

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said that the Department of Design and Construction has taken over maintenance of the system for now and that parts to repair the cameras have been ordered. An engineer will check out the system today and they should all be running again soon, Costa said.

Residents say they have heard that before.

"That will be a miracle and a half," Mollring said. "They spent the money in the beginning but don't think about down the road when the cameras need cleaning or repair."

Problems with the Chinatown cameras began when police moved their substation from South Hotel and Nu'uanu Avenue to its new location in May 2000. The company that with the maintenance contract for the cameras declared the agreement void because its workers were not used to move and reinstall the cameras, police said.

That left the city without the expertise to maintain the system, and it soon became unreliable.

The city also has six cameras covering hot spots in Waikiki, and five of them are working.

Downtown board chairwoman Lynne Matusow said the Chinatown cameras are discussed every month at their meeting because they are not doing the job intended. The cameras require work not only on the wiring and electronics, but the simple gears that turn the cameras and the lens cases need cleaning.

"Just because they have a camera at a location, if they can't tilt or zoom, I don't consider that working because they can't get to all the nitty-gritty spots they want," Matusow said. "We don't know what the hell is going on. It's really an embarrassment."

Tucker said the cameras have been effective in the arrest and conviction of several drug dealers and used for collecting evidence in other cases.

"They have been great for fighting crime," Tucker said. "Unfortunately between these back and forths of who will maintain them, the community suffers."

Downtown resident and board member Karl Rhoads said everyone, including beat officers, are frustrated by this longstanding problem, especially when the solution is so simple. "The solution is to fix them," Rhoads said. "This is not brain surgery."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.