Pahoa businesses applaud security cameras
PAHOA, Hawaii » South of Hilo, in the center of business legal and illegal in lower Puna, Santa isn't the only one watching to see who's been naughty and who's been nice.
A series of federally funded security cameras just went up in the heart of Pahoa, protecting legitimate businesses and driving drug dealers, boozers and brawlers out of the area.
Immediate credit goes to the Pahoa Weed and Seed program, a federal designation for efforts to weed out bad elements and seed in business and social development. Similar programs are under way in Chinatown and Ewa on Oahu.
Pahoa didn't get the $175,000 that sometimes comes with the designation, but it did get nearly $70,000 in a federal law enforcement Burns grant.
The money paid for setting up a tiny Weed and Seed office, several months' salary for coordinator Lon Brown and "at least eight" security cameras. Brown won't say exactly how many, for fear of giving drug dealers too much information, but a quick scan suggests the true count is about double that.
The cameras are just the latest change around Pahoa, the center of an area once famous for drugs, crime and poverty.
Drug dealing was so centralized that one dealer stood on the center line of the only street through town, stopping cars to sell "ice," Brown said.
On Dec. 9, police arrested him and charged him with offenses related to crystal methamphetamine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia, said Puna District police Capt. Steven Guillermo. The spot where he stood is now covered by several cameras.
Twenty feet away, facing the street, is a low wall where loiterers used to sit and drink beer. Prostitutes used to hang out under tarpaulins right behind the wall.
The spot is now covered by the cameras. The undesirables are gone. Some might try to go to the back side of the Akebono Theater, but that too is covered by cameras.
Madie Green, who runs Pahoa Puna Buy & Sell, is "ecstatic" about the cameras. Teenagers used to skip school, sit on the rock wall and get into fights for no apparent reason, she said. Now they're gone.
Capt. Guillermo says the law allows people found drinking in the area to be banned for a year. "I can see the difference in the town already," he said.
Some people ask if the cameras just send troublemakers to another area. Brown responds that criminals, like most people, like having a stable base of operations. Keeping them on the move keeps them unstable, and they make mistakes that lead to their downfall.
The cameras operate like the ones in a bank, meaning they aren't watched all the time, but if something happens, they can be played back for evidence.
The images they capture go into a Web site not open to the public but available to law enforcement far afield, such as the U.S. Attorney's Office in Honolulu.
The Weed and Seed geographic area actually extends upland to Kaohe homesteads, an area of 30- and 40-acre lots where poachers with night-vision goggles and camouflage clothing hike through private property at night, shooting at pigs at 3 a.m. and scaring residents.
Kaohe has no paved roads, no electric power lines, no telephone lines. But it now has a Community and Farm Watch, which notes vehicles driving through the area, even at 3 a.m. Police put out the word, "If you get caught (hunting illegally) up there, we're going to take your weapons," Brown said.
Hawaiian Beaches and neighboring Hawaiian Shores, on the makai side of Pahoa, have all of the touches of civilization that Kaohe doesn't, like pavement and power.
But it also had neglect and decay, until Fred Blas moved in. After spending his teenage years on Oahu, Blas moved to the mainland, owned seven tire stores during 40 years, then retired to Hawaiian Shores with too much energy to sit still.
Now 58, he cleaned up a county park overgrown with weeds, got friends to paint park buildings, moved to another vacant county property covered with weeds and beer bottles, cleaned that up, and created a second park.
"This place used to be a heavy, heavy drug place," he said. Now he tells kids on the verge of trouble, "Look, I don't want you to go to jail now."
A one-man Weed and Seed program, Blas seeds parks, a sheltered bus stop for kids and anti-drug signs everywhere.
Back in the village, Thai, Italian, Mexican and Filipino restaurants, as well as the Boogie Woogie Pizza parlor, are creating a new reputation for Pahoa. "It's a great place to go to eat," said Deputy Prosecutor Mitch Roth, who obtained grants for the Weed and Seed program. Roth also sees a reputation for arts and crafts stores building.
And people who park and walk to the stores and restaurants can do so with confidence, because those cameras are watching their cars.