Honolulu’s got a property crime problem. It’s on the rise but the number of cases being resolved by the police continues to drop.

Property crimes are difficult to investigate as they often lack physical evidence and concrete leads, says Honolulu Police Deputy Chief John McCarthy. The city being a tourist destination compounds the problem, he added.

“We’ve got the perfect climate,” he said. “We’ve got the victims. You know, it makes a lot of sense that property crime would be higher.”

The problem shows in the data, too. Honolulu has less violent crime than the national rate, but much more property crime, according to new FBI data released last week.

The estimated national rate of violent crime was 368.9 offenses per 100,000 people, while the Honolulu rate was 249.6. The national rate for property crime was 2,199.5, while Honolulu’s rate was 2,941.5.

A multi-year analysis of the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data showed that although the property crime rate in Honolulu dipped in 2017, it’s back on the rise.

Property crimes increased from 27,477 in 2017 to 28,886 in 2018, data showed, with the numbers for all crimes in the category — burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — increasing overall.

An increase in property crime rates often has to do with the state of the economy, said Ashley Rubin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii who specializes in criminology.

It’s hard to pin it on one thing, but things like income inequality can influence the statistics, especially since crimes that involve property, such as theft, tend to be “disproportionately committed by people in impoverished situations,” she said.

McCarthy had another explanation. Property crimes are “crimes of opportunity” and in Honolulu, there are so many, with all of the tourists vacationing here.

HPD Deputy Chief John McCarthy says the large presence of tourists add to the high number of property crimes in Honolulu. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“Tourists make great victims,” he said.

Many of them leave their bags unattended at the beach, or walk around with their guard down, he added.

McCarthy also pointed out that a good portion of the property crime that happens isn’t large-scale robberies but larceny — theft of personal property, which tourists fall victim to a lot.

Data sampled from the department’s Crime Mapping service, which McCarthy said was developed to give information to the public about what kind of crime was occurring in their neighborhoods, appeared to back his claim up. It showed that larceny made up about 30% of the crimes that occurred between Sept. 1 and 7.

“Larceny is the most prevalent crime in Honolulu in general,” he said.  Petty crimes tend to be much more common than more serious or violent crimes, he added.

Low Clearance Rate, Challenges In Investigating

Fewer and fewer police investigations for property crimes have ended in the cases being resolved.

The property crime clearance rate went from its highest point in recent years at 13.8% in 2012 to 6.5% in 2017, the most recent figures available from the Attorney General’s office.

The FBI defines clearing a crime as a law enforcement agency closing a case by either making an arrest or because some exceptional situation prevents the agency from arresting or charging an offender.

The huge dip is a reflection of a change in internal reporting requirement, McCarthy of HPD said.

Had that requirement not changed, the clearance rate for 2017 would have been closer to 12% or 13%, which would have been higher than the national average of 10.1% for cities Honolulu’s size.

But McCarthy said he understands why the public might think HPD’s clearance rate is too small.

Property crimes are very challenging to investigate, he said. Often, there’s no forensic evidence, witnesses or leads to follow up on. Going back to the example of tourists leaving their bags unattended at the beach, he said there aren’t even crime scenes to scan a lot of the times.

“You can’t DNA the sand,” he said. “What you’ve got to rely on is people talking, crooks giving it up, pawning the stolen property.”

Some news organizations last year reported that Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard warned property crime investigations would have to wait because of staffing shortages.

But that’s not quite the case, McCarthy said.

HPD Police Chief Susan Ballard responds to Commission Chair Sheehan.
HPD Police Chief Susan Ballard said last year the department would not pursue property crime cases without any leads. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“What we’re not doing is cases that have no viable leads because why should you waste resources,” he said.

What has helped in recent years is improvement in surveillance technology and more people taking videos, McCarthy said.

In cases where surveillance footage is available, the deputy chief said investigators can also involve CrimeStoppers, a nonprofit organization that solicits tips from the public about fugitives.

CrimeStoppers Honolulu received more than 3,000 tips from the public last year, said Sgt. Chris Kim, the group’s coordinator. Many of them were about property crimes.

“We’ll put it out and solicit tips from the public,” he said. “The public would then call us back, then it’s up to the investigators to follow up.”

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