Honolulu police will begin patrolling Chinatown 24/7 under a new plan by the city to crack down on illegal activity that local residents say has increased due to an influx of homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city is working with the Honolulu Police Department to finalize the details, including when the initiative would begin, according to a letter sent to the Honolulu City Council earlier this week.

It’s an effort by Mayor Rick Blangiardi to follow through on his promise to improve life in Chinatown, which he called a “hidden gem with so much potential that has been terribly neglected” in his first State of the City address earlier this year.

Patrons enjoy lunch at the River of Life Mission located along Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
Business owners and residents in Chinatown have complained of harassment and vandalism they blame on homeless people in the area. Advocates say “homelessness is not a crime.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The plan is to provide 24-hour police coverage, seven days a week in the downtown district, with enforcement broken into three foot patrol zones stretching from River Street to Bishop Street between North Beretania Street and North King Street, according to the letter sent Monday by Michael Formby, the managing director of the City and County of Honolulu. 

Officers will be assigned zones to work in parks and provide statistics for a COVID-19 Enforcement Office report. The mission of the initiative is to ensure compliance with pandemic emergency orders as well as other laws.

Chinatown currently has four to six police officers patrolling on foot from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, although HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu has said the numbers depend on availability.

“The staffing and scheduling (for the new plan) have not been finalized yet, but all assignments would be voluntary and use a computerized system, similar to that used for special duty, for sign-ups and to ensure that work hours do not exceed the limits set by the department,” Yu said in an email. She clarified that officers would be paid.

Blangiardi said he would release more details about the plan soon.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi answers media questions about Oahu’s move to Tier 4 outside Honolulu Hale.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi has promised to improve life in Chinatown, calling it a “hidden gem.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“I have been appalled with what has been happening in Chinatown and the current situation is unacceptable,” Blangiardi said in an email sent by his office. “The police enforcement plan is about protecting against the illegal activity, lewd and indecent behavior, and physical threats to residents, businesses and customers.”

Business owners and residents in Chinatown have accused homeless people in the area of vandalism, harassment and unsanitary conditions.

Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association, was skeptical of Blangiardi’s initiative because she and other community members have long been asking for more police coverage.

“If Rick can pull this off, that would be a first in two plus decades,” she said. “You have to address and remove the hardcore homeless, who are the cause of most of the problems.”

“You have to remove drug addicts, and you have to remove mentally ill people,” she added. “It’s not good for the public and it’s not good for the individual.”

HPD’s 2020 Annual Report found that crime decreased in nearly every category — murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larcary and auto theft —  across Honolulu last year. 

In 2020, 24,467 crimes were reported compared to 31,935 crimes the previous year, 31,091 in 2018; 29,916 in 2017 and 32,990 in 2016. 

District 1 – which consists of Chinatown, Downtown Honolulu and Makiki  — also saw a decline in the number of crimes with the exception of burglaries, which increased to 574 from 503 in 2019, and auto theft, which rose to 656 compared with 621 in 2019.

The policing initiative is separate from Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm’s plans to launch a new Weed and Seed program aimed at reducing crime and addressing core problems through law enforcement, community engagement, social and economic revitalization, neighborhood beautification and investment in youth.

City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga said she supports all the efforts to eradicate “illegal activity.”

“I look forward to partnering with the Administration, HPD and the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney for our upcoming Weed & Seed initiative and invite all affected residents to participate,” she said in a statement. “We hope they will become involved and help create the kind of neighborhood they desire and deserve.”

Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, agrees with the increased policing in Chinatown but doesn’t want homeless folks stigmatized for being criminals.

“I do think that policing will support more order and probably set better expectation of public behavior, but what is the equation you’re looking at?” Mitchell said. “More policing equals less homeless people which equals less crime? That doesn’t compute as far as I’m concerned.”

In his mayoral campaign, Blangiardi promised to end homeless sweeps on Oahu, but city officials continued to clear out homeless camps.

“We don’t consider that a homeless strategy,” said Anton Krucky, head of the city’s Office of Housing and Homelessness. “It’s more of a sanitation activity, sidewalk cleaning and park management.”

“Homelessness is not a crime, so that’s not about homelessness, but a crime is a crime,” he continued in reference to the increased policing in Chinatown. “And he (Blangiardi) does want to make sure that he’s addressing crime on the streets.”

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