Friday | November 17, 2017
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Taking back their community; Puueo residents, authorities to set up neighborhood watch

The Hawaii Police Department and residents of Puueo have taken steps toward the creation of a neighborhood watch to help address ongoing concerns about crime and drug use in the area.

Three officers and a representative from the Hawaii County Prosecutor’s Office met Tuesday with a small group of tenants, landlords and homeowners from Ohai Street.

The problems in the neighborhood, which residents say include drug use, drug sales and burglaries as well as squatters in vacant homes, began in 2014.

Residents have complained to the police, to county council members and to agencies such the county Board of Health since then, but a fire two weeks ago that destroyed the house at 375 Ohai St. — one of the vacant homes — pushed many to seek additional action. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

“I’ve seen the good, the bad, the worst, the ugly and right now, we are at the very bottom of the totem pole,” said resident Donald Medeiros, who was born and raised on Ohai Street. “I’m fed up; I would like to get things changed for the betterment of everybody.”

Resident Donna Labelle said the stress of being in the neighborhood was like “living under siege.”

“That is one of the most important things about neighborhood watch, is taking back your community,” said Maurice Messina, a legal assistant in the prosecutor’s office.

Medeiros reached out to South Hilo community police officer Cory Hasegawa about the squatters, after which Hasegawa arranged the neighborhood watch meeting.

“We’re trying to set up as many neighborhood watches as we can,” Hasegawa told the Tribune-Herald after the meeting. He estimated there were a dozen in his own sector.

“A lot of times people wait to get together,” Hasegawa said. “We try to get (a watch) together before then, so we can curtail all the crimes from the beginning.”

In other cases, he said, getting people together after a major incident can make it easier for neighbors to jell and work together.

“It’s a disappointing factor that a house got to burn down before something is done,” said resident Gil Silva during the meeting. “Today, we so self-sufficient nobody got time for nobody.”

A watch program allows residents to work with community police officers to report suspicious activity and keep all parties up to date. Periodic meetings and ongoing trainings would be held, Hasegawa said.

“Neighborhood watch helps people open their eyes to worry about everybody in the neighborhood,” he said.

Messina also addressed the problem of the burned house at 375 Ohai St. People on the property cannot be made to leave without the homeowner’s involvement — police have been unable to contact the owners — but a nuisance abatement claim can be filed.

“We’ve done it in Puna, we’ve done it in other places,” Messina said.

The nuisance abatement, if successful, is a “permanent injunction (against an individual) from ever returning” to the property in question. In Hawaii, it is typically used in cases of drugs, prostitution or gambling.

Still, Messina said, “it’s not going to happen overnight.”

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