Michael Kitchens, founder of the Facebook site “Stolen Stuff Hawaii,” has been quietly going about his business for three years, using the power of social media to alert followers to crimes and to help them reconnect with their stolen property, lost pets and even runaway relatives.
“The format is very interactive. If something happens, you can post it immediately and get people on the lookout. Stolen Stuff has recovered a lot of items,” says Kailua community advocate Lisa Cates.
And Stolen Stuff can be entertaining. Such as the post about the criminal who stole a Honolulu resident’s truck and then was stupid enough to post a picture of himself on Facebook driving the stolen truck. He was quickly arrested. Then there are weird crimes such as the post from a homeowner reporting that thieves had carved out and stolen squares of her newly planted lawn.
Since its founding in July 2014, Stolen Stuff Hawaii has grown into a social media group of 102,313 members.
“Stolen Stuff lets you know what is really going on in our city. It’s a movement,” says Jonathan Young, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Hawaii.
Young’s organization of 184 non-union contractors regularly donates money to help nonprofit organizations that report their losses to crime on Stolen Stuff, such as the Special Olympics team at Waialua Elementary School that had all its training equipment stolen. Associated Builders sent a check to the school to replace the stolen sports items.
“It’s been a gradual process but now Stolen Stuff is a buzzword,” says Kitchens.
It has become Hawaii’s most popular online neighborhood watch, appreciated not only by its readers but also by the Honolulu Police Department.
HPD spokeswoman Sarah Yoro says, “Stolen Stuff Hawaii has played a huge role in getting our information out to the community. It has a loyal following and allows the HPD to reach the masses through its Facebook page. SSH also provides another channel for people to reach the HPD with questions, comments and concerns.”
Now Kitchens wants to harness Stolen Stuff’s loyal following to lobby the Honolulu City Council and the Hawaii Legislature for stronger laws to deter crime and to help people protect themselves.
“I want Stolen Stuff Hawaii to have such an impact that lawmakers say, ‘Whoa, we have to deal with this,’” Kitchens says.
His plan is to start slowly to prepare to introduce proposals a year from now to the 2019 Legislature. He is gathering information from members on the Facebook site to get their views on topics such as legalizing Tasers and decriminalizing marijuana.
“Let’s see what we can come up with. Remember contribute simple easy ideas. Let’s get some wins in first before we go big,” Kitchens writes on the Facebook site.
He says he is interested making Tasers legal to allow Hawaii residents to better protect themselves from assaults.
He favors the decriminalization of marijuana “to reduce the strain on our justice system, reduce our jail and prison populations and free up law enforcement resources.”
Kitchens hopes as a lobbying group, Stolen Stuff will be able to energize large numbers of members to turn out to testify on bills or to visit lawmakers in their offices.
Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board member Natalie Iwasa is a longtime community advocate. She thinks it is a good idea for Stolen Stuff to push for legislation.
“I think anytime people engage to make our system better, it helps,” she says.
Iwasa posted recently on Stolen Stuff Hawaii to alert members to look out for her commuter bike, which even though it was carefully locked was stolen from the front of Starbuck’s at Kahala Mall the week before Christmas.
“Stolen Stuff members do a good job of helping others when a crime happens,” says Iwasa.
Kitchens says he got the idea for starting Stolen Stuff after his brother-in-law’s van was stolen, including tools he had collected over 10 years for his job doing yard work.
“Facebook rules the world. I wanted to use it to get the word out and to help my brother-in-law and other victims of crime,” says Kitchens.
The retired Air Force staff sergeant from Troy, Texas, moved to Hawaii in 2004 to be near the family of his Filipino-American wife, who was raised in Kalihi. He built up his initial following for Stolen Stuff from local motor sports enthusiasts who read his weekly column in the magazine Street Pulse and have followed his work to try to rebuild a new racetrack to replace the now defunct Hawaii Raceway Park.
Kitchens uses his Air Force retirement pay to fund Stolen Stuff, which he administers from a single computer and three monitors in a spare bedroom of his Oahu home. He’s reluctant to give his address to protect his family from vengeful criminals who have been identified on Stolen Stuff and might be intent on paying him back.
The website recently opened an online store to sell Stolen Stuff T-shirts and stickers but Kitchens says the profit is only 60 cents from each shirt and the majority of the shirts have been given out as thank-you gifts to members who have helped others recover their stolen property.
He has a team of volunteers to help him vet people interested in becoming members of the Stolen Stuff Facebook site. Not just anybody can join. Members must be residents of Hawaii or be stationed in the military here or be closely related to a Hawaii resident.
“You have to have a stake in Hawaii, to care about what happens here,” he says. “We donʻt need the perspective of outsiders talking about how they do things in their state. We want to keep this a true community-based group. Creating a sense of close community also prevents spamming and on-line fights.”
Kitchens refuses to accept ads and members are prohibited from using the site to promote themselves, their religion or their professional services or products.
“I don’t want anybody to benefit off the pain and suffering of others,” he says.
He also is adamant about members showing respect for the police and the plight of anyone who has been victimized.
He went on the Stolen Stuff Hawaii site recently to admonish people who had commented on a TV news site to criticize a woman who said she had been raped, brutally beaten and burned when she was out by herself in the early morning hours in Waikiki.
Kitchens wrote: “Some of the things being said are absolutely abhorrent. It makes me sick. What victim would want to see that when they are recovering?”
His volunteers watch the Facebook page for victim shaming and nasty comments about the police.
“Anyone acting up will get the boot,” says Kitchens.
He says he wants the page to be a positive place for crime victims and law enforcement. He says some police officers are members who regularly scan the Facebook page for information.
Stolen Stuff members are told to report any crime to HPD first and to then post the report of their crime on the Stolen Stuff Facebook page with a police report number of the incident.
“We want to use social media to extend the reach of the police, not become the police ourselves,” says Kitchens.
HPD spokeswoman Yoro says, “Regardless of the media outlet and depending on the case/incident, there is always concern regarding vigilante justice. Michael Kitchens and his SSH page administrators do an outstanding job of keeping people on topic and not letting the dialog get out of control. With approximately 101,000 followers, the SSH team does a good job of addressing incidents as they arise.”
Kitchens has also created Stolen Stuff Facebook sites for Washington state; Fremont, California; Virginia and Texas. He also plans to start a website soon.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.