About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Efforts by the city and police helped reduce the number of homeless people on the streets, but Chinatown residents say they still don’t feel safe, especially at night.

Honoluluʻs Chinatown is where it is possible to watch drug deals happening in front of you in broad daylight.

It is also where people still feel wary especially at night in spite of the cityʻs successful efforts to reduce the number of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks and increased police presence.

After attending a meeting one night in Chinatown, business owner Fran Butera asked me to walk with her to her car. She felt uneasy passing through the darkened streets alone.

Chinatown residents and business owners spoke out about their safety concerns at a meeting hosted in Chinatown Wednesday by Honolulu council member Tyler Dos Santos-Tam.

“No one is feeling safe anymore. I am scared to walk up to Pali Safeway and Longs,” community leader Ernest Caravalho said.

Caravalho told me he is especially fearful of “pockets of people doing drugs on South Kukui Street and harassing passersby.”

“I donʻt even walk through that area at night. I gave up, it’s creepy, it’s scary,” he said.

Caravalho is chairman of Honolulu Neighborhood Board 13 – Chinatown and Downtown.

Dos Santos-Tamʻs goal at the meeting was to encourage Chinatown residents to start more Neighborhood Security Watch groups — the citizen-led patrols to look for suspicious activity to report to the police.

“This will not solve every crime, but this is certainly a piece that has been missing. Studies show that when community members get involved they make a big difference,” Dos Santos-Tam said.

Chinatown security cameras safety homeless unhoused crime drugs Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock President Chinatown Business Community Association hpd honolulu police department
A new security camera is in place outside of the Honolulu Police Department’s Chinatown station, but a plan to place new high-tech digital security cameras at every major intersection has been delayed. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

HPD Sgt. Brandon Teraishi said during the meeting that “we canʻt be everywhere. We welcome the communityʻs help.”

But residents at the meeting were unsure if more citizen patrols were the answer to curtailing the drug dealing and criminal activities they say are ravaging Chinatown.

“More neighborhood watch groups are great, but the groups have no authority to do anything. What we need are more cops patrolling on foot in Chinatown. And prosecutors and judges to enforce the laws,” said Caravalho.

Eric Wong is a member one of the citizens’ patrols already operating in Chinatown. “More patrols are good,  but I donʻt think they are effective unless HPD follows up with enforcement,” he said in a text to me.

“Our citizensʻ group reports the issues we see when we walk, but we get no police enforcement after we report them, no prosecutions to keep drugs and troublemakers off Chinatownʻs streets.“

Wongʻs citizensʻ patrol is made up of residents of Kekaulike Courtyards apartments who walk the streets together every other Thursday morning.

Downtown Honolulu land owner Lee Stack, who was at Dos Santos-Tam’s meeting, emailed me afterward that she doubted if adding more citizens’ patrol groups would stop violent individuals in Chinatown from bashing windows like they are doing now and sometimes randomly attacking people with no provocation. 

“We canʻt be everywhere. We welcome the communityʻs help.”

Police Sgt. Brandon Teraishi

Fran Butera told me the neighborhood needs a friendlier HPD Chinatown substation “where residents can report crimes in person without being told instead to call 911.”

“The substation keeps its doors closed and its blinds down. It seems to be more of an administrative office and a place where officers park their cars to rest rather than a police facility that works closely with the community as we had expected,” she said.

One of Chinatownʻs most outspoken community leaders refused to attend Dos Santos-Tamʻs meeting.

“I am not going to waste my time. Chinatown aleady has two Neighborhood Security Watch Groups. It doesnʻt need a third one,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association. “We need more police presence. This is a high crime area.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi heard the community’s plea for increased security and created the Chinatown Task Force in 2021 to deploy  teams of Honolulu police to disperse through Chinatown on foot patrols.

Chinatown security cameras safety homeless unhoused crime drugs Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock President Chinatown Business Community Association
Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of Chinatown Business and Community Association, says another citizens’ watch group would be a waste of time. She wants more police presence. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The Chinatown Task Force is funded through the first half of next year, but nowadays it is perpetually short-staffed.

When it was launched, the task force had up to six police officers and a supervisor patrolling Chinatown streets in five hour shifts, seven days a week.

“The task force has helped to reduce drugs/narcotics, indecent exposure, liquor law and property damage activity,” said HPD spokesperson Michelle Yu.

Now the force is reduced to just one five-hour patrol a day with four police officers and a supervisor, and that number is only when all the officers come to work.

The police department’s new policy of 13-hour shifts, three days a week for patrol officers has made it less likely for bone-tired cops to volunteer to work another five hours on the Chinatown Task Force.

And now only half of the task forceʻs hours are spent patrolling by foot. For the rest of the time,  the officers ride around Chinatown in patrol cars.

“We have downsized a lot from what it used to be,” Shiraishi said.

HPD is currently understaffed by about 400 officers, or 20% of its full force.

Chinatown business owner Oren Schlieman says each day he watches drug deals going down from the window of his second-floor office on Mauna Kea Street with police in patrol cars driving right past the criminal activity.

“There are not enough police officers; enforcement is not consistent. Criminals take advantage of this,” he said in an email.

Schlieman says he wishes the mayor would use federal pandemic recovery funds to hire security officers from private investigator Matt Leviʻs firm for Chinatown like the city has to protect the Kuhio Beach end of Waikiki.

Leviʻs teams are off-duty HPD officers from elite police units who work with the single purpose of providing security for a specific area without ever being called away like uniformed police  to emergencies or other competing duties.

They patrol on foot and get to know the area and where its particular players hang out. A key part of their value is they are consistent, always operating within a finite space. They also are able to work with uniformed HPD officers since they are police officers themselves.

The Bank of Hawaii employs Leviʻs teams for security for the Financial Plaza of the Pacific.

Patrons enjoy lunch at the River of Life Mission located along Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
Lines of homeless people lining up outside the River of Life Mission, as shown here in 2021, was long a source of tension in Chinatown, but many homeless people left the area after the River of Life Mission ended its free meal service in April 2022 and went mobile. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Leviʻs security teams also have been hired by American Savings Bank to patrol its downtown headquarters on the edge of Chinatown as well as by a group of downtown merchants to provide security for the Fort Street Mall.

“HPD supports efforts, including the hiring of private security, that assist in making Chinatown safer for everyone,” Yu says.

The city is currently paying for two private security guards from Alii Security Systems to do walking patrols in North Chinatown from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

An additional layer of security Chinatown businesses and residents have been hoping for has once again been delayed by supply and infrastructure issues: 52 new high-tech digital security cameras are to be placed at every major intersection in Chinatown.

Only seven of the cameras have been installed. The rest are supposed to be placed next year.

Caravalho says many things clearly are better in Chinatown than 10 years ago when homeless tents lined the streets.

Many homeless people left the area after the River of Life Mission ended its free meal service on North Pauahi Street in April 2022 and went mobile, moving its food service events to other parts of Oahu.

But Caravalho says new groups dealing drugs and engaging in crimes keep coming in.

Caravalho says he yearns for the day when Chinatown can be made safe like it was when he was young

“My relatives who live on the West Side are afraid to come here to visit me. I want my mom, who is nearly 90, and my grandkids to feel secure enough to spend time with me here to enjoy the restaurants and the shops and experience the gem that Chinatown should be,” he says.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

What this article doesn't capture is that the people who attended Tyler's meeting (the night before Thanksgiving) truly do want to work with the City and HPD to make Chinatown safe. We know we have to work together, and keep trying. Will another Citizen's Watch group shut down the drug dealers? Doubt it. Will it get more residents to meet and talk, share ideas & intel, document conditions, call Crimestoppers, call the Mayor's office, join or even step up to lead community efforts? That's the hope. It's worth a try. Chinatown needs many more dedicated community activists like Ernest C., Eric Wong, Chu Lan SK and others to keep us moving forward. Citizen involvement is key. But we also know it's no substitute for enforcement, prosecution and consequences.

Chinatown_Voices · 2 months ago

TL;DR. Chinatown has a huge police presence. If the citizens of Chinatown think they need a watch group and execute, great!

E_lectric · 2 months ago

There is no way in this country in this year of 2023 that viable solutions will ever work to solve these issues. We're short 200 cops because we demonized the job enough that recruiting is made difficult, some of which is also related to the cost of living here. Then the lack of enforcement is a result of that, and lastly our laws, and the advocacy fighting for the rights of the dealers, the mentally gone, and the rest of the population on the street causing trouble and we are right where we should be, stuck with a situation everyone complains about. Imagine if we all believed drug dealers should go to jail for a while (say a minimum 1 year 1 day sentence no less, no exceptions, no early release), that mentally loss individuals will be forced into institutions, and the rules around their release heavily regulated, and that everyone remaining would be given a path to some type of housing, and refusing that would have repercussions. If we stopped caring about all these en masse and instead tried to solve each scenario under its own terms, we might have a chance. But I am a pessimist in this. Just get yourself some mace, a weapon you can legally carry, & educate yourself on usage.

Pamusubi · 2 months ago

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