A curfew at a Honolulu housing project is a way of buying time to stabilize a violent situation, state and police officials say.

What remains unclear is whether the state is taking steps to address the root causes of the problem at Kalihi Valley Homes. Right now nobody knows what security will be in place once the curfew is lifted in August, as it must be after 120 days.

The emergency curfew was put into effect April 1 at the 400-unit complex off the Likelike Highway to curb escalating violence — a stabbing, beatings and ultimately gunshots fired through the window of an apartment that hit one of the residents in the face and caused less serious injury to another.

“It was an emergency response for a situation that demanded immediate reaction. When we created a curfew, it was really an exception to the way we normally do business because people’s lives were in danger,” said Alan Sarhan, a planner with the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

However an expert on gang violence warned about the limits of the approach.

“People who are willing to shoot each other aren’t going to be deterred by a curfew,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Curfews in public housing have been used nationally since the 1990s as a cooling off mechanism.

“It’s troubling, but on a temporary basis it might be necessary,” Levenson said. But they’re only somewhat effective because there are many hours in the day the curfews don’t cover, she explained.

That touches on the crux of the issue. Many Kalihi Valley Homes residents who embrace the curfew don’t do so because they want to be locked in, but because they want to keep others out — particularly people, like their recent visitors, wielding clubs and guns. The latest violence is thought to have been caused by visitors, not residents.

One long term solution Levenson suggested — having a permanent on-site police presence — might not be cost-effective for Kalihi Valley Homes or the nearby Kuhio Park Terrace public housing complex. (Rivalry between families at the two complexes has been blamed for the recent spate of violence.)

Denise Wise, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, said having officers stationed at Kalihi Valley Homes1 hasn’t been ruled out, but with the Kalihi district police station a three-minute walk away and Kuhio Park Terrace just a few minutes farther, it’s not a top priority. In the short term, police are patrolling more frequently and even parking outside the security gates to watch for trespassers.

Both Kalihi Valley Homes and Kuhio Park Terrace use private security. At Kalihi Valley Homes, there are now five security guards on patrol during curfew, up from three. Security handles most minor problems but is not equipped to deal with criminal matters and must call on police.

The housing authority will consider recommendations for long-term solutions from police, as well as board members of the residents’ associations at both housing complexes. At Kalihi Valley Homes, residents might ask for the curfew to be extended, said resident association president V. Taiaopo Tuimalealiisano. Not only has she not heard any complaints since the curfew went into effect, she’s fielded requests that it continue.

Under state law, the housing agency can impose curfews or other emergency measures if there’s imminent danger to public health or the safety of its residents, but for no longer than 120 days without renewal.

Since the curfew went into effect, she said the residents she’s talked with report “they feel very safe. They don’t feel like before. Some people in the back don’t feel like they have to lock their doors (to keep people out).” The back buildings are closest to where young adults often brought friends to socialize, which can make for noisy nights.

Tuimalealiisano believes the violent incidents just involved one or two families in her community — and one of the people beaten doesn’t live in Kalihi Valley Homes or Kuhio Park Terrace. However, the shooting had a chilling effect. “I was fearful,” she said. “A lot of people were scared, too.”

One thing Tuimalealiisano realized immediately, however, was that she had to let go of her fear and work toward a solution. “We have to see how we can resolve it, how we can help our neighborhood.”

Tuimalealiisano pointed to two changes that could have a positive effect. If the curfew can’t be extended, limiting visitors, such as some who get into trouble with younger residents in public areas, could help. “The people (the residents) don’t like, most don’t live in Kalihi Valley Homes. The people who live here appreciate their own safety.”

She said that a permanent police presence may or may not be necessary, but the increased patrols have helped keep things under control. She sees more long-term benefit in having more social service providers on the property, especially those that can help strengthen family units by building parenting skills and offering positive activities for young residents.

Not all of the suspects have been apprehended, but the assaults appear to be related to rivalry between Kalihi Valley Homes residents and those who live in the nearby public housing community Kuhio Park Terrace. “We believe they are the result of gang violence, or gang affiliated violence, that follows the tension in the housing areas that has been long standing,” said Honolulu Police Major William Chur, who is in charge of the Kalihi Police District.

Chur did add, however, that while there has been gang activity in Kalihi for a number of years, Honolulu gangsters might identify with gang culture but generally don’t belong to full-fledged gangs that control every aspect of their members’ activities. This lack of organization and control means local gang members are less predictable and may be more prone to violence. “They might be on their own doing the things they think gang members should be doing,” he said. Most of the police calls at the complex are routine, he said, and the number has dropped since the curfews were instituted.

Police have not taken a position on the curfews, but Chur said he’s heard anecdotally from residents that it’s quieter and easier for them to sleep at night without people hanging around outside making noise. At a recent community meeting, he said Kalihi Valley residents almost unanimously supported the curfew.

However, state officials and police both point out that government-imposed curfews aren’t the ultimate answer, and Levenson notes that they should not become a permanent way to handle the violence.

“It really stops looking like America at some point and you have to start looking for some longer term solutions,” she said.

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