Last year, my neighbor’s road bike was stolen. It was secured with a lock outside his apartment, but a thief sawed through the lock overnight, leaving the cut lock and cable behind.

A few months ago, I parked my bicycle while stopping for a coffee downtown. It was noon, and when I returned an hour later, the only part of the bicycle left unlocked – a skewer – was missing. I walked my bicycle home.

These two crimes were never reported. By the time my neighbor woke up in the morning, the bicycle had already been sold to a fencer and stripped down. And I never had any hope of recovering the skewer.

 

The property crime rate in Honolulu is increasing after reaching record lows in 2017. Many factors have been cited: increasing income inequality, desperate drug addicts, lax law enforcement.

The cause is less certain than the effect. Property crime increases the stress and cost of living in the city. It lowers the quality of life for everyone, especially the least fortunate.

Thieves recently backed their truck into a window at Macy’s in Ala Moana Shopping Center and stole jewelry and other items.

KITV

Headline News

Recent headlines are alarming. Earlier this month, criminals backed a stolen truck through a window at Macy’s Ala Moana, filling the truck bed with jewelry displays. Last Sunday, three people were robbed at a Kailua bus stop in the early afternoon. On Tuesday night, police shot and killed a man believed to be involved in a series of carjackings and robberies.

Most property crime, however, doesn’t make the news.

Stolen Stuff Hawaii, a popular Facebook group, allows people to share their stories of theft. Recently, one member posted security camera footage of thieves breaking into tool cabinets with bolt cutters. Another posted nighttime footage of would-be thieves checking for unlocked cars.

The comment sections are full of outrage, often devolving into racism and calls for vigilante justice.

If you scroll through Stolen Stuff long enough, you might come to the conclusion that crime in Hawaii is worse than it’s ever been. This probably isn’t true, but if I were a betting man, I’d wager that the 2019 statistics will record a year-over-year rise in property crime.

Shoplifting Spam To Apple Pencils

I used to live in Nuuanu, a few blocks from the Pali Longs and Safeway. At the time, I worked downtown, near the Walmart on Fort Street Mall. I remember the wave of shoplifting in 2017 that led to retailers locking up their Spam.

During that period, it was common to see criminals exchanging their canned goods for cash in broad daylight, without shame. The difficult part of the crime had already been committed.

In college, I worked retail at the Apple Store, and we were vigilant against shoplifting. Thieves still managed to pilfer Beats headphones from the shelves.

I recently visited the Apple Store at Kahala Mall. While there, I watched a man, clearly in the throes of addiction, collect four Apple Pencils from the display and attempt to stuff them into his pocket. A store employee intervened, but not before I noticed that the man’s pants and backpack still had Ross price tags attached. I don’t think they were purchased.

It would be naive to blame property crime on drug addiction alone. There are other contributing factors. Surely, poverty and parental neglect play a role. A lack of education and opportunity can increase the appeal of crime. But these circumstances do not excuse wrongdoing.

Who Pays The Cost?

The cost of property crime falls on all of us. Retail prices go up as stores offset their lost inventory and invest in security. Homes require security systems; cars need alarms. Doors are dead-bolted.

The cost is not only monetary, but also psychological. It’s constant fear and peering over shoulders and through blinds. It’s daily arming of security systems and locking down of homes. It’s a far cry from my mother’s youth, when her family home and car were always unlocked.

After the skewer was stolen from my bicycle, I replaced it with a set of locking skewers to deter future thieves. The loss was insignificant, but multiply that theft by thousands, add in the value of possessions ranging from Spam cans to luxury cars, and the cost of property crime is massive.

The cost is especially high for the poor.

There is no simple solution to property crime because the desperation that leads people to steal cannot be reduced to a single cause.

Poor people aren’t protected by security systems or guards. Their losses aren’t insured. They work late hours and live in areas which expose them to the risk of mugging.

We do no favors to the poor when we relax our law enforcement. We shouldn’t treat career criminals with leniency. We should provide petty criminals with the job skills training that can help them reenter society. But if rehabilitation fails, criminals deserve harsher punishment. Otherwise, they continue to victimize those who cannot protect themselves.

Of course, legal remedy comes too late to prevent crime.

We cannot excuse criminal behavior, but we should address the conditions that foster it. Shared prosperity and economic opportunity can reduce the appeal of crime. Addiction treatment programs can lower the number of people who steal to feed their habit. And some forms of proactive policing may reduce crime.

There is no simple solution to property crime because the desperation that leads people to steal cannot be reduced to a single cause.

That desperation is a product of many factors: individual and environmental. Crime is not the fault of society, but society bears the cost.

We may never return to the days of unlocked homes and carefree strolls in the night air. Still, prevention and punishment of property crime is a worthwhile investment.

Some might say that such efforts are too expensive, but these critics ignore the cost of allowing crime to continue.

We pay either way. Choose wisely.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.