Hilo retailers say police presence needs beefing up
By Colin M. Stewart
Some residents are questioning the strength of the police presence in downtown Hilo after a recent spate of gang-like activity by roving packs of teens.
In the past two months, groups of young adults and teenagers have been responsible for muggings, assaults, thefts and vandalism.
Spokesmen for the Big Island police department say they have stepped up patrols downtown, and that plainclothes officers have made covert drug and alcohol busts.
Police Capt. Randall Medeiros said that his department has not put more officers on the street, but rather concentrated the ones that are on duty in trouble spots such as the area between Mo'oheau Bus Terminal and Kalākaua Park.
"Things have calmed down" since the police stepped up their response about a month ago, Medeiros said. "However, our efforts have not. We will continue our efforts until we have a firm handle on these groups and their intimidating and assaultive activity."
The Tribune-Herald spoke with six downtown business owners who said that while they have noticed more activity by police, it had not appeared to deter the more brazen acts of vandalism, theft and assault.
Half of the shop owners and managers said they did not want to be quoted for fear of reprisals by hoodlums, either against themselves, their businesses or their employees.
One step toward combatting the current bout of gang-like activity is working with the county Parks and Recreation Department to change some of the rules for parks in the downtown area.
"We've been working with them as far as control of the hours of operation of the parks and what types of things can and can't be done inside them. That way we can control and keep people from hanging around," Cortez said.
Most of the business owners that the Tribune-Herald spoke with agreed that from their perspective, more visible patrols downtown would go a long way toward prevention.
Increased presence was the idea when business owners and members of the Downtown Improvement Association lobbied for a police substation on Kamehameha Avenue next to the association's information booth.
The first "ministation" on the Big Island, Mo'oheau Police Substation, was part of the community policing program, which was established in the mid-1990s.
But since then, use of the station has waned, and the door to the little office is usually locked, according to association Executive Director Alice Moon.
"Since the inception of the (community policing) program, lots of things have happened," she said, "including the recession. Businesses are strapped, and the availability of community policing officers has lessened. As a result, they've infrequently utilized the ministation."
Cortez says his officers rarely use the office because it doesn't have a working computer, which police depend upon to do their paperwork.
That may not be a problem much longer. Moon said the association is "looking for a computer to be donated or purchased or moved from another department to this location.
"In all fairness, I think the police have a strong presence here. We see them. But having something obviously manned or staffed on a scheduled basis would be an additional deterrent."
Another way of increasing the effectiveness of police officers downtown would be to put more bicycle patrols in action, Cortez said. Hawai'i County received a federal grant in 2008 and started a bicycle patrol program.
"This is something I'm really passionate about," he said. "It softens the presence for business owners. Officers are more approachable on a bike. They stop and talk to people. And on the enforcement side, the stealth they provide is incredible."
At present, Cortez said, there are four officers in Puna, five in Hilo and one in Hāmākua who are trained to patrol on bicycles.