Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm on Friday. Our interview with Alm, a retired U.S. attorney and Circuit Court judge, has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories. Here are some of the highlights of the interview, which begin with Alm talking about his approach and philosophy in his new position.
Steve Alm: Nationally and locally, people are going to extremes. Some people want to lock everybody up. Others want to let them all out. And they both think they’re doing the right thing with that. And I totally disagree with that. And I think that has been formed over the years. I have been in different parts of the system because when I was at this office before, it really was, “Send as many people to prison for as long as possible.” We thought that’s the highest, best use for a prosecutor.
And if it causes other problems in the system, overcrowding, that’s somebody else’s problem to deal with. You know, the Legislature, Public Safety. We didn’t think about that stuff. But being a U.S. attorney and a judge, it really changed my whole viewpoint of things. And so I really do think you can do both. You can individualize it, identify it.
I think probably 35% of the defendants at sentencing should be sent to prison. The really violent, the dangerous, the ones who absolutely will not stop stealing. Some people need to be removed from society for a few years, or more, to protect the rest of us. But when they’re in there, they should be rehabilitated. There should be classes. I talked to inmates who tell me they’d rather go to Saguaro to do their time because of their classes at this private prison. This is embarrassing, but that’s another subject to talk about.
But the violent and dangerous should go to prison, and that’s probably 35%. That means 65% can and should be placed on probation, given a deferral to keep their records clean so they can be better. We all win when people are on probation and we should use (it) and (help them) succeed. We should use the proven strategies like Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Hope Court, probation that will allow that to happen and that takes research-based thinking.
“I think probably 35% of the defendants at sentencing should be sent to prison. The really violent, the dangerous.”
I really think as a prosecutor you can do both things. You can be tough on the ones who are violent and dangerous and who won’t stop stealing and try to send them to prison. But at the same time, you can be compassionate. You can try to help people succeed, because when people on probation or deferrals succeed and are working, paying taxes, we are all better off. And I would put my record of helping people, working with others in keeping people successful on probation and out of prison against anybody in the state I think is a good prosecutor. You can do both.
I want to ask you about Weed and Seed. What is the status of that today?
We don’t want to oversell this, but we’ll start working with the police. Because people are going to get arrested, whether it’s felonies or misdemeanors, the police cannot wait to get started. We have had numerous meetings with the police and that means the majors in (HPD Districts 1 and 5) because it covers both areas basically. Right. But that means the crew units. That means the bicycle patrol. That means narcotics vice. That means the community police officers.
But (we’re) working on that to clean up Chinatown — those residents and those businesses deserve a break. So we are going to do this. We did it before. We can do it again.
But at the same time, the homeless problem is worse than when we did this before. So because of my background and Cheryl’s background (senior advisor Cheryl Inouye), working with all the drug treatment programs, I’ve talked to all of them. They are all willing to take some of the chronically homeless in, several each, without pay. The day they go into treatment, they start setting them up for public assistance. That typically takes three weeks to kick in. They’re going to take these folks in for free for the three weeks and then hopefully it’ll kick in. We’ve applied for a couple of grants that may be able to help out. But anyway, we’ll see.
But the whole idea is, housing is great. Helping the homeless that way is great. But unless you deal with the behavioral health issues, I am convinced it’s not going to work. They’re going to smoke crack or most likely meth. If they get into housing, they’re going to get kicked out or they’ll bring their friends there, or just the lure of the streets will get them back there. We’re trying to work out the details to get them assessed, like in a week, maybe we’ll see. And then to go into one of the treatment programs.
To be clear, this is still the focus, this area of the neighborhood. And that’s where you started.
Actually, it is. And that’s why we’re going back to it.
So this is an indication that the problems continued?
Oh, absolutely. When I left as U.S. attorney, it died out. The weed part died out. The seed part has always been there, both here and then we did the Pupu streets and Aniani Place in Waipahu and then Ewa Beach. And so they’re incorporated now. And it’s the two working together.
And in fact, the weed gets people’s attention. And if they start seeing, no offense, some of these lowlifes in Chinatown get arrested and then don’t come back because we can do a geographic restriction or something else, we will change that neighborhood again, working with the people there. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that all the efforts we did working together the first time led to that renaissance in Chinatown.
Local people when we started this, they said, well, you’re never going to clean up Chinatown. It’s just impossible. But local people wouldn’t park their cars there. It was dangerous. And after that happened, it wasn’t. It literally wasn’t.
But over the years, it has gone back to the way it was. Definitely the homeless problem’s worse. Yes. So it definitely needs to be worked on.
“All the Weed and Seed efforts we did working together the first time led to that renaissance in Chinatown.”
Let’s go back to your Campaign Q&A with Civil Beat. Your top pressing issue facing this office was all about restoring trust. On a secondary note, restoring public confidence, particularly in the wake of the federal corruption probe. And you said, “We’re going to examine all the cases touched by former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, determine involvement, take the appropriate action. Look at potential corruption in the office and root it out.” Where are we with that?
(First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney) Tom Brady is leading that up. (Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney) Chris Van Marter, another hard-ass, is helping him. They are looking at everything she touches. They’re interviewing people. We found some cases assigned to her, like in the bench warrant office, just shoved into God knows what. So they’re looking, you know, between other files.
So part of it, you have to talk to people, try to find out if she just had a case and passed it on to one of the deputies and had no further contact with them. It shouldn’t be any sort of problem, but we don’t know. We’re hoping to finish it, you know, maybe in three or four months.
One of the big concerns is that this could invalidate the actions that were performed when she was in the position.
My guess is not for very many cases. There may be a few, but just because her name (was on it), you know, (or) she passed it up, you know — we’ll hear from defense counsel if she was heavily involved in a few things. So people have asked for cases to be transferred somewhere. So we’ll look at that stuff, you know, and if she was heavily involved, we’ll do what it takes, including if somebody pled guilty, letting them withdraw their guilty plea. I mean, you know, whatever it takes.
And that’ll be made public.
Oh, absolutely. We don’t want anybody who is unlawfully convicted to be said is sitting in prison. So we’re happy to look at that.
So, we’ve really taken on the police stuff now in a big way. It’s an issue whose time has come. And so I think one of the things is that if you really want to bring about fundamental change, you really have to understand what’s going on. And we can’t just be like dipping in from the outside, we have to really work harder to try to understand why something is happening, like these police shootings.
I really want to try to understand what your role as prosecutor is going to be now in terms of looking more closely at some of these cases.
Well, this is the way business was done in the past. Police would investigate themselves. And we’ve discovered, unfortunately, that seems to be kind of the standard across the country, the agency doing the shooting investigates themselves. That’s problematic because people are going to look at that with some suspicion no matter what. And I am a big fan of the police in general. They protect us when they’re shooting. We all naturally will run in the other direction they run. We should always remember that.
You know, I was happy to get their endorsement. I’ve been working with them since 1985, doing cases. We set up training for them on Saturday mornings at the end of recruit school about how to be honest and effective witnesses. So they’ve got an incredibly tough job to do. But with that they’ve got incredible authority, they carry guns and in appropriate cases they can use those.
But it comes with responsibility. And I think we’ve got to do a better job of looking at that, which is why we are changing procedures now. We will do an independent investigation of any officer-involved shooting of civilians going forward. And that includes the Kalakaua case. That includes the Nuuanu case. And I’ve assigned our three felony trial division chiefs to head those up.
What we’re talking about is an actual investigation, not a review of reports, which no offense is what that independent review board does. They’re being asked to do something impossible. Because of the way it’s set up — they’re volunteers.
But we’re talking about an actual investigation. The police have been very cooperative. They’ve sent over the body cam footage. They sent over reports. The physical evidence is down there for us to look at (and we’re) re-interviewing witnesses as needed. We’re doing this in an expedited way, but being thorough at the same time. And if anyone is going to get charged, we will have a press conference about that.
Are you interviewing the officers themselves?
As I said at that last press conference, we’re not talking — I’m not going to talk about the investigation, what we’re doing, what we’re not doing. I mean, generally speaking, we are doing a thorough investigation. Whatever we think needs doing, (if) we thought it needed to go to (the) grand jury we would do that, too.
I ask because (former Honolulu Prosecutor) Keith Kaneshiro kind of told us at a board meeting years ago that the union wouldn’t allow the officers to be interviewed by his office and that they had to all be in the same room at the same time, and those of us who watch TV know that’s not the best way to get the stories straight. So I’m just curious if you were running into SHOPO problems with any of this.
I’m not going to talk about it.
And that’s why — I really am disappointed. You know, when we talked about it at the press conference, the reason we’re not talking about these things is they are governed by the very rules of professional conduct that the Supreme Court mandates for us. And there is a specific section dealing with trial publicity and it talks about (how) lawyers participating in the investigation or a trial shouldn’t do anything that they know will lead to dissemination, public communication. They’ll have a likelihood of effecting an adjudication proceeding in this manner. That’s jury selection.
“I have a track record of making the tough calls, of indicting police officers or prosecuting police officers.”
So, ironically, we find ourselves in this office the only people apparently out there who care about giving the defendant or the state a fair trial. So no offense. I mean, your job is to be out there trying to get information, get out to the public. My view of that is, like the body camera, wait a few months. Because right now you’ve got pundits, you’ve got lawyers who are interested in the case. You’ve got so-called experts. They’re opining based on limited things they’ve seen. And they’re saying, “HPD was justified, HPD wasn’t justified. It’s racist. It’s non-racist.”
Believe me, if we charge police officers, jury selection already is a nightmare. It’s going to be even worse because (of) everybody who’s already prejudged this case, it’s going to be a problem.
The rules of professional conduct don’t really apply to the question of whether you’re going to be interviewing police officers in general. We’re not asking about a specific case yet, but we’re asking about the procedures that you’re going to be using as a prosecutor to serve a so-called independent investigation.
Good try. Thank you. We’re going to be doing the investigation like we do any other investigation. You interview the witnesses, you need to get an interview. You look at their statements. If you need follow up, you do it. You don’t talk about the investigation at all.
But that’s a specific investigation. We’re talking about a general procedure about whether or not you’re going to have access to them.
We’re going to follow the general procedures we use in every other case and interview whoever we need to get to it. And if somebody doesn’t want to interview with us, they’ll find themselves in front of the grand jury.
But back to the main point. The public really, really, really wants to know what’s going on with police overreach, police oversight. And so if you’re going to not talk about it how does that really help the public? Why can’t the public know, for instance, if the union is interfering with your attempts to interview officers? Because that’s a very big public policy issue right now. And it’s one that’s playing out all over the country — union control of police practices so that the police executives themselves are not able to even deal with cops that need to be disciplined.
So it just seems wrong to sit here and say that you’re going to step in and do a much more thorough job than your predecessor did but then shut the public out. Because how can you expect the public to be on your side if you’re not going to be open?
We’re going to ask the public to be patient. I have a track record of making the tough calls, of indicting police officers or prosecuting police officers. And we’ll do this in an expedited fashion. And I know people are really curious and they’re interested and I can understand that (and) we would just ask for their patience as we do this.
OK, let’s move on. This involves a specific case, and that’s the Christopher Deedy case (the U.S. special agent involved in a Waikiki shooting death). I wanted to know why it’s your philosophy on that case — it’s before the 9th Circuit. I want to know from your perspective as a newly elected prosecutor, why do you think it’s important to continue to pursue the prosecution?
I think you answered your own question there. The case is in one place at a time. Right now it’s with the 9th Circuit. It will be very interesting to see what happens. And when they come up with a ruling, depending on what it is, we will take action or not. So it’s one of the many things that were sitting here when we got here. But I want the 9th Circuit case to play itself out because they had ruled the first time and they had talked about certain legal theories. So I just want to have that go first. We can absorb whatever they come up with in deciding what our next steps are.
But generally, what do you think? What do you think about the handling of that case?
I think I’ve heard you say a few times that this statewide law enforcement review board is not really organized the way it should be and that there maybe should be some other kind of oversight, maybe at a county level. I just wondered if you can expound on that a little bit, talk about what you think an appropriate sort of oversight might be and how that might come to be.
It’s a blessing in Hawaii that we have a very low murder rate. And so what I think you really need would be an independent agency that isn’t answerable to the state AG or to me, maybe answer to a U.S. attorney. But you need to staff it with people that are experienced in prosecuting and investigating homicides and are up to date with current techniques and other things. And that is not on the horizon anywhere.
And the closest place to it is right here (the county prosecutor) because we have the experienced prosecutors who are up to date on it, who have done multiple murder cases. And you need that kind of level of expertise, and I don’t want to be down on on it, but it’s going to be expensive.
And have you seen an agency like that somewhere in the country?
No, but what typically happens is they have another investigative agency that’s independent that can do it. And then either the DA in that county does or it comes back here.
You know, I did a bunch of murder cases. I’m not current on stuff, but I can evaluate this stuff. And as a judge, I kept current up until I left the bench in 2016. So, I mean, you’ve got more talent, frankly, and experience in this office than anywhere else. So until that board, you know, the Legislature comes up with the money and we figure out a way to set it up, we’re the logical place.
The last thing. We are committed and we are going to look at the whole pretrial detention, including cash, bail. Cash bail penalizes the poor. I don’t like it, but you could be the biggest ice head on the island, and if you can make $3,000 bail for the burglary you’re charged with, you are not supervised at all pretrial under our system. So we are going to look at that whole system. And we realize from being in the system for so long that you can’t just affect one part of it without looking at the rest.
Some of the misdemeanors, petty misdemeanors, maybe the “no bail” should be set, but then they’re going to have to be brought in front of a judge to decide should they be released on their own recognizance. Should they pay a $25,000 signature bond like they do in the feds? Are they going to be supervised by the intake service center? We’ve talked to (Public Safety Director) Max Otani about would be able to do a pilot on this, but it’s got to be a holistic look at the entire thing. The Washington, D.C., Pretrial Services Agency is a great example of it.
So we’re open to all sorts of ideas in criminal justice reform. And this is one of them. But it’s one of those areas, I think if we get involved in it, look at it, get partners, talk to people in the system, we can actually come up with a plan for the Legislature for the next session.
Did you support this bill that was going through the Legislature, the cash bail bill?
We had problems with certain parts of it. But they had enough exceptions that it really didn’t bother us, you know? I mean, they put in exceptions for the violent crime stuff. So it wasn’t a big deal. We could live with that.
That’s going to be part of your package?
For next session.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell, Julia Steele, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.