If you are the victim of a crime in Honolulu, odds are that charges will never be filed in the case.
FBI data released Monday shows that the Honolulu Police Department is far below the national average when it comes to “clearing” cases – when officers make an arrest or otherwise close a case.
In fact, data kept by the FBI and the Attorney General’s office going back nearly 40 years shows the overall clearance rate was the lowest it had ever been in 2018. And 2019 was only slightly better.
HPD made an arrest or otherwise solved only one violent crime for every four that occurred in 2019, according to the FBI data.
Of the 2,866 cases of homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault reported last year, HPD cleared only 735 cases – a rate of 25.7%. The average percentage for a similarly sized city is 35.6% and is 45.5% across all police departments, according to FBI data.
“More than one third of the time in Honolulu, you’re not solving a homicide,” said David Johnson, a criminologist and professor at the University of Hawaii. “A low clearance rate is not a good thing. It’s a badge of shame.”
The statistics are even worse when it comes to property crime.
There were 29,263 cases of arson, burglary, larceny theft and motor vehicle theft in Honolulu in 2019. HPD closed only 1,582 cases. That’s 5.4%.
The national average for cities with similar populations is double that. The national average for all departments is more than triple Honolulu’s rate.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at UH, said the property crime clearance rate is “unbelievably low.”
“This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been burglarized,” she said. “They come out, write a report and say, ‘Get a dog.’ That is really disheartening.”
The value of stolen property in 2017 alone totaled over $33 million, according to the Attorney General’s most recent Crime in Hawaii report.
Overall, approximately 32,000 serious crimes were reported to the Honolulu Police Department last year, and only 2,317 were cleared, the FBI data shows.
That’s a clearance rate of 7%.
Civil Beat made repeated requests to HPD on Monday and Tuesday to interview Chief Susan Ballard or another HPD official about the department’s clearance rates. An email sent directly to Ballard went unanswered.
Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said HPD wouldn’t comment until the Attorney General publishes its Crime in Hawaii report. It is unclear when that will be.
Clearance rates are widely regarded by police departments across the country and the world as a key measure of the effectiveness of an agency, Johnson said.
“And it looks like Honolulu is not doing very well,” he said.
A Civil Beat review of HPD’s clearance data shows the rate has been trending downward for several years, most recently around the time Mayor Kirk Caldwell took office.
Since January 2013 when he was sworn in, the violent crime clearance rate has fallen almost 20 percentage points. In that time, the property crime clearance rate has more than halved.
Meanwhile, the number of violent crimes reported has shot up over 17% in the last five years, the FBI data shows.
“It’s unbelievable, unacceptable, and frankly I’m speechless,” City Councilman Tommy Waters, who chairs the public safety committee, said in a statement.
“In the past few months, I’ve conducted three town hall meetings on crime — Hawaii Kai, Waikiki, and Diamond Head – and these numbers reflect what my community is feeling. People are upset, and they don’t feel safe.”
In 2019 alone, there were over 2,000 victims of murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, who “will never see justice,” Waters said.
“Those numbers must improve,” he said. “We keep giving HPD more and more money, and we’re seeing less and less results.”
Waters pointed to HPD’s recent pandemic ticketing spree as evidence that the department’s priorities are mixed up.
“If HPD put as much effort into solving violent crimes as they did into issuing the 58,000 citations to otherwise law-abiding citizens, the city would be much safer,” he said.
“A low clearance rate is not a good thing. It’s a badge of shame.” — UH criminologist David Johnson
HPD has struggled with its clearance rate before.
In 2003, the Honolulu Advertiser reported that Honolulu solved violent and property crimes at a rate of less than 9% in the previous year, which was the lowest rate in nearly three decades and lower than the average of comparably sized cities. At that time, the clearance rate had been dropping since 1998, the paper reported. After that, it increased most years until the downturn around 2013.
The current clearance rates are low by Honolulu’s own historical standards. It’s a rare event for the violent crime clearance rate to fall as low as 25% or below. Other than in 2018 and 2019, that has only happened in two other years since 1982, according to data in Crime in Hawaii reports.
Honolulu averaged around 36% in that time period.
Over that nearly 40-year span, HPD’s property crime clearance rate has never been as low as it was in 2018: 4.98%.
Several factors can impact a police department’s clearance rate, said Johnson, the UH criminologist.
In general, Honolulu has a lot of property crime that can be hard to solve. Other cities with a different mix of crime could have an easier time, he said.
Tourism is likely a factor as well, Chesney-Lind said. If tourists are victimized, they may just want to go home instead of cooperating with police.
“Without a victim, it’s harder,” she said.
But Honolulu’s numbers also raise questions about how the department is allocating its personnel.
“How many police resources are devoted to clearing cases?” Johnson said. “That is a function of how many police you have and what sort of managerial decisions are made to focus on this area instead of this area, or to focus on clearing crimes instead of other police activity. That matters.”
HPD has lamented its staffing problem. In 2019, the department had 1,864 officers. It’s authorized to have 2,143.
Ballard has said that the officer shortage has forced her to make tough calls. She told the Honolulu City Council in 2018 that “we’re using our staffing on the more high-profile type of cases, and the other ones are not being investigated,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
Those “other ones” include vehicle thefts, burglaries and other property crimes, the paper reported.
However, more officers doesn’t guarantee a higher clearance rate.
The last time HPD had such low staffing was in 1998 when HPD had 1,779 officers, but the clearance rates at the time were higher.
Despite higher crime rates on Oahu and nationwide during the 1990s, HPD’s violent crime clearance rate didn’t dip below 30% and the property crime clearance rate stayed above 10%.
As for how existing resources are allocated, the Caldwell administration has made a point of addressing social service problems, including homelessness, with law enforcement. HPD even runs a tent city to provide homeless individuals and families with shelter during the pandemic.
While that program, POST, is a point of pride for the city, Ballard has also publicly complained about how police officers get saddled with too many responsibilities that would be better addressed by social service agencies.
Loretta Sheehan, an attorney and former member of the Honolulu Police Commission, wonders if that approach is coming at the expense of solving crimes.
“If that’s true, the core mission of HPD is being neglected,” she said. “I can’t criticize HPD or Chief Ballard for doing what the mayor wants. But I do think that as chief, Ballard has to pay close attention to the core mission.”
One major problem with Honolulu’s clearance rate is that no one talks about it, Johnson said.
Sheehan, who previously chaired the Police Commission, and her successor, Chair Shannon Alivado, both said they couldn’t remember HPD ever briefing the oversight body on the department’s crime-solving success rate.
Sheehan acknowledged she never asked.
“I put that blame on us,” she said. “That’s on me. If that wasn’t discussed, it’s on me.”
Alivado, government relations manager for Hawaiian Electric, said the numbers show “room for improvement” and she may add a discussion about clearance rates to the commission agenda.
HPD doesn’t make its stats easy to find.
The clearance rate is not mentioned in its most recent annual report published on its website. It includes basic information about reported crimes and arrests but doesn’t include the data point that illustrates the department’s ability to solve cases. As recently as 2016, HPD annual reports did list clearance percentages.
“That’s like a baseball player not posting their batting average,” Johnson said. “That, in my view, is a major problem. It indicates that either the leaders at HPD don’t care about clearance rates or they don’t want people to know. Either way, it’s troubling.”
For over 20 years, the Attorney General’s office published an annual Crime in Hawaii report with criminal justice statistics, including clearance data for each county. However, it hasn’t published the Crime in Hawaii report since January 2019, and that was for 2017 data.
So the latest information on Honolulu is three years old, despite the fact that the office has continued to post stats on other islands.
AG spokesman Krishna Jayaram said last month that the office is still preparing a report on Honolulu’s 2018 data.
Even the FBI’s website doesn’t explicitly list clearance rates. The federal agency provides the crime and clearance totals, and one has to do math to figure out the rate.
HPD should be sharing this information with its officers and the public, Johnson said.
“The numbers are a way of keeping people accountable,” he said. “What isn’t counted doesn’t really count. Not to count something is to say, implicitly, it doesn’t matter very much.”
“It’s unbelievable, unacceptable, and frankly I’m speechless.” — City Councilman Tommy Waters
To boost its clearance numbers, Chesney-Lind said HPD could form a task force to identify problems and make recommendations. During the pandemic is an especially good time to get a handle on this, she said.
“We have the luxury now of not having a vast number of tourists, so this is the time to build capacity and figure out what to do differently,” she said.
The Police Commission also needs to step up, Chesney-Lind said. Honolulu’s commission looks weak compared to other cities like New York, whose police oversight boards have real teeth, she said.
“Other police commissions have representatives of marginalized communities, they have advocates of various types, prosecutors, former prosecutors. That’s what you want to see on a police commission,” she said, adding that recent additions Michael Broderick and Doug Chin help to make the Honolulu commission more credible than it has been before.
The clearance rate is important because it’s not just a measure of HPD’s efficacy, Johnson said. It also sends a message to the public.
“If the public perceives the police to be lousy at solving crime, the incentive to report crime goes down,” he said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.