Many Oahu residents are feeling rattled and nervous about their perception that violent crime is on the rise. Newly released statistics from the Honolulu Police Department make it clear the change is not just in people’s imagination.

The number of murders, aggravated assaults, forcible sex assaults and robberies on the island climbed about 5.6% in the first seven months of the year compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the statistics. To some extent a bounce had been expected because people only began returning to normal patterns of activity well into 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic ebbed and vaccinations became widespread.

But officials expressed concern about some worrisome trends on the island, with recent headline-grabbing events displaying a disturbing quality: panicked tourists on Waikiki Beach fleeing a man brandishing a gun; a pregnant woman shot dead at a Chinatown bus stop; a 7-Eleven employee charged with attempted murder after lopping off a customer’s hand with a sword.

“Violent crime is increasing, absolutely,” said Bobby Cavaco, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, who blamed the problem on the dwindling police presence on the streets. He also cited the growth in drug use and mental illness, along with the reopening of bars, which has led to a return of boozy brawls.

HPD Honollu Police Department officers arrive at scene along Nuuanu Avenue in metropolitan Honolulu.
Honolulu Police Department officers arrive at the scene along Nuuanu Avenue in metropolitan Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Crimes of aggression “occur now daily or almost daily,” Cavaco said, compared to five or 10 years ago. The incidents also are odder, too, he said, such as the man who was murdered and encased in concrete in a bathtub.

There is some good news: The statistics indicate that property crime declined 18% in that same period. Burglaries, thefts from cars and car thefts also dropped. Historically, that was the major source of crime in Hawaii, and one that experts have linked in large part to drug use.

Murders rose 28.6% on Oahu, from 14 in the first seven months of 2021 to 18 through July of this year.

Aggravated assaults were up 3.4% across the board but rose 40% in Waikiki; sexual assaults islandwide were unchanged year-over-year but were up 60% in Police District 4, which includes Kaneohe, Kailua and Kahuku, according to the HPD data. Robberies jumped 10.6% overall, but by 69% in Police District 2, which stretches from Mililani to the North Shore, and by that same amount in Pearl City, Waipahu and Aiea, which are in Police District 3.

In the year before the pandemic, the number of murders, aggravated assaults, felony sex assaults and robberies was about 8.2% higher in the first seven months than in the same period in 2022. However, the increase in murders this year is raising concern.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm agreed that violent crime is increasing as normalcy returns following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. At a press conference Monday, he said that the nature of some of the crimes has changed, with Oahu seeing more of what he called “terroristic threatening cases,” as “people are out and about doing more things.”

“People are acting a little nuts too, I think, after what had happened with that,” he said, referring to the shutdowns and other Covid restrictions.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi's office declined to comment, referring questions to HPD.

Deputy Police Chief Rade Vanic said that the higher murder rate so far this year may be an aberration as homicide rates vary significantly from month to month and year to year. In the past, Honolulu has a lot of murders early in the year but few later, or vice versa, he said.

But he added that murder rates in Honolulu may also be mirroring trends on the mainland, where an increase in gun violence has led to more deaths.

"It's not unique what we are seeing; it's happening across the nation," he said.

He noted that the more sensational crimes tend to draw public attention.

"Sometimes desperate people do desperate things," he said. "It is hard to get into the mind of someone who is willing to commit that sort of crime, but I think that is a little disturbing and the population is picking up on (that) more disturbing sorts of crimes may be occurring more frequently.”

Hawaii's crime rates also have been distorted by Covid. For example, Vanic said, the number of burglaries fell because it was harder to break in and steal from homes if the residents were there all the time, while auto factory shortages and high auto prices prompted criminals to shift instead to car theft.

Alm said the prosecutor's office is working closely with HPD to "charge everyone who breaks the law and hold them accountable in court."

Some areas have been harder hit than others, according to the police statistics. On the Waianae coast, Police District 8, there were five murders in the first seven months of the year compared to only two in that same period in 2021. A woman was beaten to death with a tree trunk outside the police station in Kapolei in February, for example, and a man was killed and three others were injured in a fight over a stolen gun in March.

“Whatever the causal factors might be, we’re seeing it on the ground,” said Sharlette Poe, chair of the Waianae Neighborhood Board. “It’s scary and it’s touchy. Unknown situations make people nervous.”

“Hawaii shouldn’t be like the continent when it comes to this sort of crime,” she said.

Waianae needs more police officers, Cavaco said.

SHOPO President Robert Cavaco speaks to Civil Beat reporters in our conference room.
SHOPO President Bobby Cavaco blames the increase in crime in part on a shortage of police officers due to recruiting problems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Out there we are stretched thin on the coverage of police officers,” Cavaco said. “We may have only five officers to stretch from Kaena Point to Nanakuli.”

The city is having a tough time replenishing its roster, he said, adding that although HPD is recruiting heavily and trying to find ways to retain more job candidates, the number of vacancies has climbed from 319 in February to 348 today.

“We are losing more than we are gaining,” he said. “The number of recruits is not matching the numbers retiring or resigning.”

Vanic said HPD is changing the way it trains recruits to give them more mentoring, which the department hopes will increase retention, by offering more and smaller classes to give new hires more one-on-one attention. He said that seems to be working, and that department officials are hopeful they will increase staff numbers soon, which would allow them to place more officers on the streets.

With the return of tourism, there have been more crime victims in Waikiki in 2022 than in 2021, according to HPD statistics. There were 67 aggravated felonious assaults in the tourist hub in the first seven months of the year, up from 48 in 2021; and 52 forcible sexual assaults, up from 39 in 2021.

Cavaco said that many violent attacks there occur in the late evening hours.

“Tourists mix it up with local guys who are down there and up to no good,” he said. “They get into a fray.”

Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Kathryn Henski said in April she saw a man attack and knock out a woman who appeared to be homeless and mentally unstable because she touched his pickup truck. It happened in front of numerous witnesses at the corner of Royal Hawaiian and Kalakaua avenues, she said.

“I was shocked,” she said, noting that she quickly called the police.

It's not clear why sexual assaults are up in some places while the nature of crimes may be changing.

"There has been an uptick of sexual assault cases involving strangers in the last several months," said Lynn Matsuoka, executive director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Center, in a statement. "It's unclear to us the reason for the increase of these types of cases, but it is a concerning trend."

The heightened awareness of crime is becoming a political issue. In the Honolulu District 6 City Council race to replace term-limited Carol Fukunaga, four of the seven candidates said that addressing crime was a top issue in their campaign platform.

HPD Recruiting Classes
Honolulu is having a tough time recruiting and retaining police officers. The number of vacancies climbed from 319 in February to 348 today, according to SHOPO. Screenshot: HPD Annual Report

In interviews this week, the two highest vote-getters in the primary race, Tyler Dos Santos-Tam and Traci Toguchi, said they had had recent brushes with crime themselves. Toguchi said she was the victim of a car break-in while parked at Ala Moana Center in March.

"Even if you go to a shopping center you can still be a victim," Toguchi said. "It happened to me."

Tam witnessed a young man steal $60 in cash from an elderly lady in a Chinatown shopping district at 9 a.m. on July 14. Several bystanders chased the thief and he was captured by an undercover policeman, Tam recalled.

"People are much more on edge than they were before," he said, with more people reporting what he called “very violent, brazen kinds of things.”

It's causing anxiety to rise, he said, making people “feel frustrated and almost hopeless.”

Toguchi, an aide to Fukunaga, said she was hopeful that a proposed city resolution would boost police officer’s pay to make it more comparable to wage scales on the mainland.

Residents in Waianae are trying to learn everything they can about how the police operate so they can more effectively lobby for better enforcement, Poe said.

“We want to work with the department, not just get mad at people and point fingers,” she said. “Our community’s challenge is how do you navigate through the system to get the correct assistance we need.”

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