Shutting ‘ice’ houses
challenges isle police

Four county chiefs gather in
Honolulu to discuss crystal meth

After neighbors realized a Big Island "ice house" was dealing crystal methamphetamine, it took four months to get rid of the dealers -- even though one of the neighbors on the street was Hawaii police Chief Lawrence Mahuna.

"The house was finally taken down, but it took four months to effectively get rid of them," said Mahuna. "Even after warrants are executed (and arrests made) and every utility is turned off, they keep coming back."

Mahuna told the story yesterday when he spoke in Honolulu at a gathering of police chiefs from all islands to talk to the media about what the police are doing to combat ice.

During the past few months of media publicity and public meetings about the ice problem in Hawaii, residents have expressed frustration that police are slow to respond to reports of neighborhood drug houses.

Yesterday, police chiefs from the Big Island, Oahu, Maui and Kauai explained they have to work within the limits of the law when attempting to close down a drug house. They said they do surveillance and other forms of information gathering that the public may not see before they can obtain search warrants. They all acknowledge how frustrated the public becomes when they call in a complaint.

"But we have to work within the parameters of the law," said Honolulu police Chief Lee Donohue. "People have to be patient. These investigations take time."

Donohue said of the 1,200 drug house complaints his department received last year, about 300 were "too nebulous" to investigate, but they checked into 900 others.

"We can't just walk up to the front door and start making arrests," said acting Kauai police Chief Wilfred Ihu. "These investigations don't happen overnight. They need a few months and a lot of work."

Big Island Chief Mahuna said that to get a search warrant, police need to confirm ice is being sold not only by monitoring people coming and going at the house, but by making an undercover buy. Typically, he said, police need to make the first buy to show there is drug activity and a second buy to confirm it.

"Making the buy can be difficult. These dealers are clannish about who they sell to," said Mahuna.

Even after search warrants and arrests, it can be hard to clear ice dealers out of the house, Mahuna said. Under state laws, dealers are often released after their arrests and free to return to the house.

"You can turn off the electricity and all the utilities, and they will just keep coming back. You basically have to foreclose on the house," he said.

Mahuna and others said there are several signs a house is dealing ice. Twenty to 30 people a day will make visits of between 30 seconds and three minutes. The house often falls into disrepair, children may look neglected and there may be frequent domestic disputes.

Neighbors should count cars and write down license plate numbers, Mahuna said.

Maui Chief Thomas Phillips said an ice house across the street from two retired police officers recently took about two months to shut down.

"It takes hours of surveillance and work," said Phillips. "Sometimes we go up to the front door and sometimes someone lets us in and we spot drugs or paraphernalia. But that doesn't happen often."


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