Discovery of needles at park sparks creation of task force

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Courtesy photo A used hypodermic needle lays on the ground in Kailua-Kona.
Courtesy of HAWAII COUNTY OFFICE OF THE MAYOR Needles found at Hilo’s Bayfront Park.

Alarmed by photos on social media showing needles and other drug paraphernalia at a county soccer field, Mayor Harry Kim called emergency meetings of state and county officials, creating a task force to tackle the problem head-on.

The group, including island police, county parks personnel, county attorneys, homeless coordinators and state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement personnel, met Tuesday and again Wednesday to put the finishing touches on a plan of action.

One photo, posted by state Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, showed needles in the grass near what he described as the Hilo Bayfront soccer fields restroom. The photo was taken Monday and sent to him by a friend, he said.

The area is a known gathering and camping area for homeless individuals.

Kim said he also received reports about paraphernalia in homeless gathering spots in West Hawaii, including in parks and along Alii Drive. He said there have been no recent complaints about Old Kona Airport Park, where tent cities were cleared out last fall.

“This is not acceptable,” Kim said. “These are the community’s parks. You should respect them. You are endangering the lives of our most innocent — our children.”

Kahele, who has young children, was equally upset. He called it “ironic” that needles were discarded just 500 yards from the mayor’s office.

“Right in the heart of Hilo, where families gather, where people exercise, where kids play,” Kahele said. “It just hits home that there’s a crisis.”

Kahele praised the Kim administration for taking quick action.

Kim said people who come upon needles in public places should report them to the police, using the nonemergency number: 935-3311. Police dispatchers and parks personnel will keep records to pinpoint the problem areas.

Kahele said it goes beyond just enforcement to include help for addicted individuals who might be living on the streets.

“How do we meet with our community who is homeless, who are drug addicts,” Kahele asked. “Do we look the other way and pretend they’re not there?”

It’s not yet known if there’s been a recent spike in hard drug use on the island.

Illicit drug use in Hawaii self-reported in the prior month from 2013-14, the most current data available, among 18-25 year-olds was consistent with the national average of 6.58 percent of the population and among 26-plus-year-olds it also was consistent at 2.73 percent of the population, according to state Health Department data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The percentage of adults 18 to 49 years old reporting methamphetamine as their primary substance increased from 44.3 percent of those admitted for treatment in 2010 to 49.9 percent in 2014, according to the Health Department.

Kim said the county is researching how other locales use amnesty drop-off boxes for needles and sharps, installed in public places. That at least would keep them off the grass, he said.

“Our goal isn’t arrest and prosecution,” Kim said. “It’s a matter of keeping our parks safe and our facilities safe.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.