Downtown assault in broad daylight exposes dismay, questions over patrols

  • Homeless individuals rest on the wall in front of Big Island Grill. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • A homeless man staggers around a parking lot off Hanama Place. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)
  • A homeless man sleeps behind a rock wall by the county parking lot on Kuakini Highway. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • A group of homeless individuals sit under a tree at Hale Halawai. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)
  • Questions the arose after a brutal assault in broad daylight Sept. 5 in Kailua Village revealed gaps in security and communication around the agencies tasked with monitoring the area. (Tom Hasslinger / West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Robert Hoffman was enjoying a stroll down Alii Drive with his girlfriend around 3 p.m. Sept. 5 on the last day of their Hawaii vacation, when they came upon a disturbing sight.

Just south of the former Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a man pushed over a homeless person’s shopping cart and then walked up to another man sitting on the rock wall and cold-cocked him in the face.

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“He just kept on swinging, every punch connecting,” Hoffman said. “The guy getting hit falls backwards on the rocks and the other guy jumps over the wall and just keeps on whaling on his face. I was screaming for him to stop.”

As Hoffman was calling 911, a red truck stopped in the middle of the road and offered assistance. As Hoffman was unfamiliar with the area, he handed his phone to the local, who gave the 911 operator the location of the assault. Other businesses in the area that witnessed the assault also called 911. Once the victim was rendered unconscious, Hoffman said the perpetrator, whom he described as homeless, skipped and jogged away.

Hoffman wanted to stay with the victim until police and EMS arrived. But, he said, they didn’t come.

“He was out for at least 20 minutes,” said Hoffman. “He was bleeding all over. I thought he was dead.”

Hoffman stayed with the victim for about 45 minutes. Still, there was no sign of emergency personnel and the Lakewood, Washington, resident had a plane to catch. He said eventually the victim and another man, who identified himself as the victim’s brother, also left the scene.

Hoffman was so disturbed by the violence and lack of response, he called the police several times after he returned to Washington to find out what happened. He said he was told by the department that they had no record of the call.

Caleb Evans was working across the street at Hand Made Clay Orchids in the Kona Alii complex and also witnessed the assault that took place across the street. His account corroborated Hoffman’s.

“I saw the cops down the street a couple of hours later talking to the guy,” he said, noting the assailant was “high out of his mind.”

“We need to do something about the homeless,” he added.

Evans said what occurred isn’t unusual. Police are called daily to that area. He said things were better in the area when Metro Security patrolled there, which they did prior to 2016.

Another merchant in the complex, who did not want to be identified, witnessed the assault and also called 911 multiple times during and after the affray.

“After it was all over and everyone left, 911 called me back and wanted me to explain what I (originally) called for,” said the merchant.

The witness went on to say that they regularly watch drug deals happening, assaults occurring and they have to clean up where vagrants defecate on the walkways.

“It’s the same thing day in and day out. And the Kailua Village Business District is doing nothing about it.”

Questioned about the 911 call, The Hawaii Police Department said it received it, but attributed the delayed response to informational and dispatching issues.

“The call was dispatched,” Samuel Thomas, assistant police chief, Administrative Bureau, wrote in an email. “It was dispatched a little over 24 minutes later due to an initial lack of specifics as to the location and then a general location to which upon officers’ arrival, the parties had already left the area. There was also an issue with the way the call was initially categorized which could have added to the delayed response.”

He did not elaborate, when asked, on specifics regarding how the call was categorized.

Police did catch the suspected perpetrator. Darrell Oates was arrested for second-degree assault later that same day. His preliminary hearing is Thursday.

But a West Hawaii Today probe into the incident revealed communication issues between police and the Kailua Village Business Improvement District (KVBID) security team tasked with patrolling the area. And businesses are agitated with KVBID’s security team, as well.

Nearly 20 downtown businesses spoke to WHT and expressed frustration about its apparent lack of duty fulfillment. They said they rarely see patrols, if at all — and when they do they’re usually cleaning debris, not helping police. Their anger comes just months after downtown stakeholders came together for community meetings that focused on doing more as a team to cleanup illegal, vagrant behavior in the downtown tourist hub.

What’s more, the inquiries revealed that KVBID hasn’t disclosed its annual report to the Hawaii County Council — as it is required to do — in years; nor has it, or anyone, replaced security cameras that once operated downtown.

HISTORY BEHIND KVBID, FUNDED BY PROPERTY TAXES

The Kailua Village Business Improvement District (KVBID) was formed after a 2007 county ordinance created and funded the nonprofit organization. Parcels of land within the district are assessed a fee through their property taxes to fund the organization.

The district is comprised of two zones in the village from Makala Boulevard to Honl’s Beach. Zone 1 encompasses part of the Old Industrial Area, Alii Drive, and portions of Palani Road to Henry Street. That zone is supposed to receive priority safety and maintenance coverage.

The ordinance states the District Association is to provide information and safety officers trained by HPD and qualified security officials who may patrol by foot, bicycle or motorized vehicle seven days a week and will work through a communications network, which includes HPD and private landowners.

They also are to provide a clean and attractive pedestrian environment through the work of “Clean Sweep Crews.” The crews provide landscaping maintenance and cleaning.

The board of the organization is comprised of 17 individuals but zero paid employees. The voting members of the board include representatives of fee simple owners, lessees of land and tenants of commercial space within the district.

They are required to submit a statement of operation, a financial report for the previous year, and anticipated surplus or deficit from the preceding assessment year and any new rate or method of assessment for the next year. The last time a report was submitted was in 2008. As of 2017, KVBID had an asset or fund balance of $523,249.

The 2013 KVBID strategic plan states: “Prior to the inception of the KVBID in 2007, the physical appearance and general ambiance in and around Historic Kailua Village had noticeably deteriorated. So much so that visitors and residents avoided coming to town as it was perceived as dirty and crime ridden.”

In its first few years of operation, KVBID launched security patrols on bicycles and roving vehicular patrols, janitorial services, planters, landscape installation, signage, a Keauhou-Kailua Village shuttle, a Kokua Kailua monthly marketplace and other achievements, receiving numerous recognition awards.

According to the latest income tax return in 2017, KVBID had an income of $971,098. Over half a million dollars was paid to Block by Block, a national company that provides safety, hospitality and cleaning services. The contract was awarded to the Tennessee company in 2016. Prior to that, security, landscaping and maintenance were handled by local businesses.

KVBID PLEASED WITH PERFORMANCE — MERCHANTS NOT SO

KVBID president Jane Clement said they are extremely pleased with the services provided by Block by Block.

KVBID issued a request for proposals for security, landscaping and maintenance services it provides in 2016. KVBID’s Placemaking Committee reviewed all of the submittals and recommended to the organization’s Board of Directors to consolidate and bundle all of the services with a single provider.

The KVBID Board of Directors unanimously approved retaining Block by Block, a company that specializes in providing services for business improvement districts across the country. KVBID was attracted to the efficiency and expertise of a national organization with local hires. One of the bidders who did not receive the contract was Nic Kaawa. Kaawa was hired by Block by Block to run their Kona operations. Block by Block hired all staff locally.

“Safety is one of our primary focus areas and KVBID has an expanded security presence throughout the Village,” Clement wrote in an email response to questions posed by WHT. “KVBID Safety Ambassadors (security) are both on foot and on bikes and in roving vehicular patrols in the Village. The Safety Ambassadors on a daily basis in the daytime hours walk Alii Drive and Kuakini Highway (Zone 1) and bike through the various streets of the Old Industrial Area (Zone 2). The Safety Ambassadors patrol both zones in the evening hours by vehicle.”

However, 20 merchants in the village told West Hawaii Today that there is no security presence.

“Never, never, never see security patrols,” said Rhonda Dallas, who works at two shops on Alii Drive. She said the last time she saw anyone was months ago.

Another merchant, who did not want to be identified, has had a jewelry business on Alii Drive for the past 40 years. The merchant said they have never seen the vagrancy problem as bad as it is now.

“I get bombarded daily,” the merchant said. “They want money and even the jewelry I’m wearing. There is no security. Nobody is visible.”

She added the homeless problem in town is a deterrent for everyone, locals and visitors alike.

The sentiment that the situation in town is out of control was echoed over and over by storekeepers.

“My employees are afraid to walk to their cars at night,” said one.

“We watch these things happen down here all the time, and there’s no security,” said another.

Stefanie Gubser is operations manager for Manini Holdings, the parent company of Kona Brewing Company. She said the presence of Block by Block security at their 6-acre complex is non-existent.

“We get nothing. It’s completely mismanaged,” said Gubser. “We had to hire private security to patrol and do door checks at night. KVBID is paid by taxes. Where is our return?”

She said Manini Holdings is consulting with off-island security to address the situation at their property on Pawai Place in the Old Industrial Area.

“Something is not right. Something is not adding up,” Gubser added.

BLOCK BY BLOCK DEFENDS PATROLS

Kaawa responded to reports regarding Block by Block’s lack of security presence in the village by defending his team’s actions. It’s the police department not doing enough downtown, he said, Not Block by Block.

Of their 10 employees, three comprise security.

Kaawa said three security personnel rotate two shifts a day, Monday through Friday, performing foot and bike patrols. From 8:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. they have vehicle patrols. He said they do not have any enforcement authority, rather they report illegal activity to the police.

“We call HPD and it either takes hours for them to respond, or they don’t respond at all,” he said. “The police don’t want nothing to do with us. They don’t want our help.”

He agreed with merchants that the vagrant issue in the village is intense, but his team is fulfilling their duties associated with it.

“It’s out of control,” he said. “They know the police are not patrolling there and they know their rights and the law better than a lot of us.”

Security guards, meanwhile, are required to obtain a “guard card” from the state. Kaawa said he and his guys all have their cards — however, a check with the state’s Professional and Vocational Licensing Division showed his card was revoked in 2018. Kaawa said that they didn’t have updated ones at that time but they are all current.

As for HPD, the department said it used to have a dedicated Community Policing Officer unit tasked with patrolling the area on foot. Staffing shortages in the department, however, have left only two of those officers covering the district.

A special enforcement unit was set up to address problems associated with drug use and other crimes. Despite its success rate, the unit was dissolved in August.

HPD Maj. Chad Basque said there is no more SEU due to “manpower limitations.” He said the department would consider filling the unit up again when manpower allows.

SECURITY CAMERAS NO LONGER ACTIVE

WHT’s inquires also found that once-used security cameras that monitor downtown activity were inexplicably removed and are yet to be re-installed.

Nineteen security cameras used to be mounted in strategic places around town, provided through a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority to KVBID. The cameras provided a live feed to the Kona police station.

Community Policing Officer Reuben Pukahi said the cameras were used to monitor the area and provide evidence for prosecution of crimes taking place in the village. However, the cameras have not been operational since the 2016 Ironman.

Pukahi investigated and found out that Hawaiian Telcom erroneously removed the receivers and antennas mounted on the roof of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel after the event. Neither the police nor KVBID could explain why they were not replaced. When West Hawaii Today reached out to Hawaiian Telcom, they said they would look into the matter, but did not respond as of press time Friday.

The problems associated with homeless and vagrancy spurred a grassroots effort and community meetings that started earlier this year to come up with creative solutions how to better police it.

Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas has been a part of those discussion, as the area lies within her district. She said another meeting is being planned for sometime in October.

“My office is following up on a number of opportunities presented at the last community meeting regarding homeless issues,” she said. “I’m concerned about this security situation and look forward to working with KVBID to identify solutions.”

Hawaii County Councilwoman Karen Eoff said she planned to follow up on why KVBID hadn’t been filing its annual report to the council.

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“I was surprised to hear the reports were not able to be located after the first year given the ordinance requirement,” she said. “Upon further research, I was not able to discover any subsequent reports. Council will inquire as to why they were not submitted.”

“We are just sitting here and waiting for something to happen,” Grubser added.

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