THE ANTHRAX SCARE
Mixed SignalsThe phone is an average-looking Nokia cell, but when it rings the conversations at the Honolulu Police Department are anything but average.
HPD detectives keep busy
investigating all calls of
By Rod Antone
Then again, no one calls the terrorist hotline at CALL-HPD (225-5473) just to chat. Usually the calls are of a serious nature.
At least, according to the caller.
"One lady called and said that four years ago she saw a man leave a briefcase at Fort Street Mall," said Detective Alan Matsumura. "And that she believed she recognized that same guy on a recent episode of America's Most Wanted.
"How are we supposed to investigate that? There was nothing to investigate."
Still, because of the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks on the mainland, police say they have to investigate each and every suspected terrorism call. One caller on Oct. 7 told police about a male "suspect" he was acquainted with who "hates white people" and is a "strict Muslim." The caller also added that the suspect had "not done anything," but felt that police should have him "checked out."
Another caller on Oct. 15 said he saw a "Middle Eastern male" kneel and pray in front of a post office then get in a car and drive off. Later, when police were investigating, the caller said he wasn't sure of the suspect's ethnicity and said the person seemed to be bowing, or at least "bent over."
All of the callers were likely concerned people who just wanted to do what Mayor Jeremy Harris suggested in a recently televised public service announcement: "If you see anything suspicious, call police and we'll check it out."
And so they are.
In the first seven days following the mailed anthrax attacks on the mainland (Oct. 12-19), police responded to and investigated 30 cases involving "powdery substances," 28 cases involving "suspicious packages," and two cases involving suspects described as "Middle Eastern" or "Muslim."
That's not counting calls in which no case was made because of either a lack of evidence, lack of suspects or even that the caller never showed up to meet police.
Meanwhile, over the same seven-day period, there were 65 non-terrorism/anthrax-related felony cases. Not to mention the 116 non-terrorism cases that took place between Sept. 28 and Oct. 11. Many of those cases are still under investigation by HPD's Criminal Investigation Division.
Add up the numbers and HPD's commitment to investigate every terrorism-related call is taking its toll.
"Our caseload has tripled because of all this responding," says HPD Lt. Roy Kajiuye. "It's taking away from (detectives') regular assignments.
"We cannot continue at this pace."
Kajiuye adds, however, that while caseloads are increasing public safety is not being affected. He says police are not sacrificing one case to investigate another; they're just staying longer and working more.
"We just gotta keep assigning the detectives," Kajiuye said. "If it continues like this we're going to have to get more detectives assigned to the watch. Probably add a couple more (detectives) at the rate we're going."
Third watch detectives -- the 3 to 11 p.m. shift -- get most of the terrorism/anthrax-related calls. For several days some detectives said those were the only calls that they were assigned to investigate.
After a while, some were glad to investigate other crimes.
"Hey, look at this," said one third watch detective on Wednesday night. "I got a real case."
"What kind of case?" another detective asked.
A "wanna trade?" offer is made to swap for a case involving a "suspicious white powdery substance."
The offer is declined, but the conversation displays the feeling of futility among detectives, a feeling that despite all their efforts, most of the anthrax calls they go on are not going to result in anything but a police report.
"All these things require a report (and that we) be at the scene for several hours," said Matsumura. "It's frustrating."
But police don't feel they can afford to take any chances.
"No bona fide cases so far, but it doesn't matter," said Kajiuye. "We have to check everything out because you never know when someday it's going to be for real. "There is no question that we have to respond."
So far, out of all the "terrorist" calls, one arrest has been made. Police arrested a 15-year-old Pearl City High student for terroristic threatening last week after he allegedly poured a "suspicious powder" on a classroom table and wrote the word "anthrax" on a wall.
Some other calls probably would have come to the attention of police anyway, such as the woman who on Thursday opened up a piece of certified mail and found two syringes containing a "white substance and a piece of aluminum foil." The woman immediately covered the objects with a bucket and called emergency medical services, according to police.
Another woman in Aiea opened up her mailbox and found a small bottle of Safeway coffee creamer inside. The woman called police after she was told by store officials that they weren't mailing out free samples.
Would she have called before staffers at network television stations and the U.S. Senate got infected with anthrax?
Police say not likely. Still, despite the false alarms, detectives continue to urge people to call whenever they feel threatened. They do ask that the public keep in mind one thing.
"Please," said Lt. Kajiuye. "Use your common sense."