HPD plays catch-up with racers
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
About 50 of nearly 2,000 Honolulu police officers are specifically assigned to catch speeders and racers and the department does not have an overall islandwide strategy to combat racing or excessive speeding on O'ahu's roads.
But police say it is the responsibility of all officers to enforce traffic laws.
Commanders of O'ahu's eight patrol districts determine their most pressing law-enforcement priorities, then allocate resources to combat them. This includes the commander determining whether or not to create specialized traffic-enforcement units.
Of the eight districts, only Windward and East Honolulu have enforcement programs, although commanders in other districts try to beef up enforcement at problem roadways and highways when time, labor power and money allow.
The problem, according to police officials, is resources. In addition to battling the ice epidemic and Hawai'i's high rate of property crime, the department must also train its officers to react to terrorist attacks. Add in the day-to-day responses to calls for service, and officers have a heavy work load, police said.
"If you look at our speeding enforcement, how can we say if this is successful or not? We can't put a thumb on it. If our fatalities go up and our citations go up what is that?" said Assistant Chief Stephen Watarai, head of HPD's Central Patrol Bureau.
"We have a lot on our plate, so how do you address that as a (district) commander?"
The issue of police resources devoted to dealing with speeding and racing has risen since of the Feb. 13 collisions on H-1 Freeway in Pearl City that killed four men. But it's an issue that has surfaced in the past after other roadway tragedies.
In the Feb. 13 collisions, two cars that witnesses say were racing slammed into the back of a truck that was clearing debris from the zipper lane on H-1 near the Pearl City off ramp. The crash ignited a fiery blaze. Among the dead was the truck's passenger.
On Dec. 8, four people were killed and three were injured in a collision that police believe involved racing in Makaha. And early Oct. 12, two men were killed when their Honda crossed the center line of Ala Moana and crashed into a sport utility vehicle. Witnesses said their car was racing with another vehicle before it crashed.
Maj. Bryan Wauke of the HPD Traffic Division said 42 officers are designated for speed enforcement and traffic safety. It includes a Night Enforcement Team out of their Alapai Street headquarters that consists of two sergeants and 10 to 12 officers split between motorcycles and patrol cars. The unit works Tuesday through Saturday nights, patrolling O'ahu's highways.
During the day, the other traffic-enforcement officers from the Alapai Street headquarters patrol rush hour traffic from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. When not on rush-hour duty, the officers roam the roadways issuing citations, Wauke said.
Police officials also stress that the 1,973 officers on O'ahu are able to issue citations for speeding, racing and reckless driving.
District commanders and officers also emphasized that calls for service remain HPD's top priority, and that any extra speed patrols would be secondary. HPD has a reputation for responding promptly to every call, regardless of the situation, police said.
"Whether it be a barking dog or whatever, we respond to calls in a timely manner," Watarai said.
Nine police officers operate in special anti-racing units run out of the East Honolulu and Windward districts, the two that have enforcement programs.
In the Windward patrol district, which runs from Makapu'u to Turtle Bay, a DUI Enforcement Team has five officers, five days a week for eight hours at a time. The team looks for speeders, drunken drivers, and racers, said Maj. Susan Dowsett, the district commander.
"We do a lot and we get a lot of results," Dowsett said. "It (traffic safety) is a priority of mine."
In 2003 Dowsett's district issued 8,311 speeding citations, 120 reckless driving citations, and 89 racing-on-the-highway citations. She said her district had the most DUI arrests of any on the island.
In the East Honolulu patrol district from Punahou Street to Makapu'u, the Racing Abatement Program and the Speed Abatement Program have cracked down on speeding, racing and reckless driving since October 2001.
Both programs were begun after Holy Trinity School teacher Elizabeth Kekoa was killed in an H-1 collision near Kaimuki in August 2001. Nicholas Tudisco, 21, has been indicted on a manslaughter charge. Tudisco pleaded not guilty, but prosecutors say he admitted he was racing.
In the abatement program, two police officers drive up and down the freeway and Kalaniana'ole Highway looking for speeders. As many as four other officers wait at strategic intervals along the highways to intercept the speeders. The program operates almost every night.
The Speed Abatement Program includes the temporary posting of large, orange diamond-shaped signs designating a speed abatement area with officers with radar guns occasionally standing next to the signs.
Outside of the two neighboring districts, speed enforcement by district officers becomes sporadic and less consistent.
In the Pearl City district encompassing Red Hill to Village Park, police said there is no consistent traffic enforcement effort. Pearl City police Lt. Benjamin Ballesteros said that when staffing permits, the substation does post two officers on the freeways, usually on weekends. But, he said, Pearl City faces a manpower shortage, too.
"Assignments in other areas have dwindled our patrol rosters. If there are any programs that we start, some of it has to be on overtime and that is hard to come by," he said.
Out in the Wai'anae district, acting Maj. Greg Lefcourt said fatali-
ties last year prompted the police to work with the community on educating drivers about the perils of speeding. He said last year's deaths also initiated several saturation patrols, specific nights and times when officers from other districts helped enforce traffic safety in his district.
Lefcourt said the district uses speed wagons radar guns mounted on a wagon with a large display that shows the driver exactly how fast they are driving. The wagons are usually posted near speed-limit signs. He said he leaves it to his lieutenants to organize line patrols, officers driving up and down stretches of freeway, whenever possible.
"We don't have all that much freeway compared to other districts," Lefcourt said. "It depends on the day and what's going on."
In three districts covering parts of Kalihi, Waikiki, and downtown Honolulu, no specific traffic-enforcement programs have been adopted. Commanders in each district said they try on a regular basis to disburse officers to strategic points where speeding or fatal accidents are known to occur.
"Speeding is always a problem but we haven't experienced too much of a problem," said Maj. Michael Tucker, commander of the downtown patrol district. "There is not a real stretch of straightaway. There are onramps and people coming on. It's dangerous and there is enough traffic so it is not really a problem."
In the district covering the rest of Kalihi, Lt. Kent Harada said there are five areas that when time permits, patrol officers look for speeders. He said officers from each of the five areas, which include the Likelike Highway and Nimitz Highway near Waiakamilo, and Salt Lake Boulevard, are required to submit weekly traffic-citation reports.
Harada said there is always something going on in the area of traffic enforcement.
"We're not always staffed," Harada said. "Its unfortunate. We're spread kind of thin, but we do what we can with the manpower that we have. But we can't do it every night."
In Central O'ahu covering Wahiawa and Mililani, Maj. Stephen Kornegay said there is an officer patrolling the roadways, especially in known problem areas, seven days a week. Kornegay asked officers who cite speeders going 25 mph over the speed limit to turn in a copy of the citation.
Kornegay is attempting to pinpoint specific areas in his district so that he can direct more patrols to those positions.
"We don't seem to get that much organized racing," Kornegay said. "What we do get is people driving way too fast, late at night."
He said his officers have issued 332 speeding citations this year.
Reach Peter Boylan at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 535-8110.