Cuts could imperil crime fight in isles
The state and counties might receive less federal money to battle criminals in Hawaii
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Cutbacks to a federal grant program could leave Hawaii with $1.5 million less in funding this year for fighting drugs and crime.
The cutback means some crime-fighting projects will have to be cut, causing officials to worry that crime and drug production could increase.
Last year, Hawaii and the four counties received $2.4 million in grant funding. This year that amount could drop to $890,000, according to a national estimate.
The federal program, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, funds 27 projects in Hawaii, including the Marijuana Eradication Task Force and the Cold Case Squad charged with solving cold murder cases.
State officials say it is too early to tell which projects would be cut because the funds are not expected to be released until this summer.
Hawaii congressional representatives and other members of Congress are fighting to have funding put back into the grant program.
"All of those programs bring value to our efforts," said Honolulu police Maj. Mark Nakagawa. "Either directly or indirectly, they're impacting public safety."
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Local officials are worried that a sharp reduction in federal funding will eliminate projects such as the Cold Case Squad, which solved a 15-year-old murder and sent the killer to prison last year.
The Honolulu Police Department uses the federal funds to fight gangs, guns and street drugs.
"Like a sinking boat, you have to think what to save and what's to go," said Honolulu police Maj. Mark Nakagawa, commander of HPD's finance division.
Hawaii could lose some programs, such as Mental Health Court, which helps mentally ill offenders get treatment; Sex Offender Registration Compliance, which tracks sex offenders to be sure they register; and the Cold Case Squad.
Last year, the Cold Case Squad's work led to the conviction of Jenaro Torres in the murder of Ruben Gallegos, 19, who worked as a cashier at Pearl Harbor in 1992.
The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, named after a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty, funneled about $2.4 million to Hawaii last year. The grant funds 27 projects statewide for reducing drugs and violent crime and upgrading law enforcement technology.
But in January, Congress reduced the 2008 overall funding to $170 million from $520 million a year earlier because the Bush administration argued that the money is needed elsewhere.
The National Criminal Justice Association estimated Hawaii would receive about $890,000 this year -- a 63 percent drop.
Members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, are fighting to restore the funding.
Still, local officials are starting to look for alternative sources of money or cutbacks.
"Some projects would disappear, but I wouldn't venture a guess on which ones those would be," said Adrian Kwock, grants and planning branch chief in the state Attorney General's Office. "What we have done is advised people (that) if they can find another funding source, now is the time to find it," he said.
Nakagawa said the benefits of the programs funded by the grant are hard to measure, but that all have a positive impact on public safety by increasing police contact with the community.
Without such programs, police would lose a chance to work with at-risk kids, he said.
"All of those programs bring value to our efforts," Nakagawa said. "Either directly or indirectly, they're impacting public safety."
The Hawaii Narcotics Task Force and the Marijuana Eradication Task Force are two statewide projects that are receiving funding from the Byrne grant. Last year, the two task forces seized 20 pounds of crystal meth, 23 pounds of cocaine and 222 pounds of marijuana.
The Marijuana Eradication Task Force, known as Operation Green Harvest on the Big Island, seized an estimated $72 million of marijuana in Hawaii last year. More than 50 percent of those plants -- 41,046 -- were found on the Big Island.
"It would obviously affect how we do our operations," said Big Island police Lt. Samuel Jelsma, administrator of the Task Force. In 2007, the force received $634,183 in Byrne funds.
He said while the county pays for officers on that island, federal funds are used for training, overtime, equipment and helicopter rental. With less funding, the task force would have to forgo training and fly fewer helicopter missions.
The marijuana program, however, is not without controversy. Critics complain about helicopter noise and police infringing on residents' rights. The County Council will debate on Thursday whether to turn down federal funding for the program.
But Jelsma said the 30-year-old program has reduced the number of outdoor marijuana plants. Before the program, outdoor marijuana growers would threaten residents who accidentally walked into a marijuana patch, he said.
The program also deters crimes linked to marijuana, such as the sale of harder drugs, illegal firearms, and stealing electricity to grow marijuana indoors, he said.
"Obviously when you have something under control and then you lessen that control then it's a bigger problem to try to control it again," Jelsma said.
On the line
Here are some programs in Hawaii funded by the Byrne grant and what they do:
» Cold Case Squad: solves cold homicide cases.
» Project Clean Sweep: reduces the number of illegal firearms in Pearl City.
» Sex Offender Registration Compliance: improves tracking of unregistered and non-compliant sex offenders.
» Hawaii High Technology Crime Unit: fights computer-related crimes.
» Mental Health Court: improves the Oahu court system's response to sentencing of the seriously mentally insane.
» Da Grad: prevents middle school students from getting involved in drugs, gangs and violence.
» Integrated Booking System Expansion: increases sharing of fingerprints and mug shots between local, state and federal agencies.
» Maritime Intelligence and Enforcement: reduces drug trafficking in Hawaii's maritime sector and state harbors.
» Marijuana Eradication Task Force: reduces marijuana by seizing plants