Sunday, July 24, 2005

Manoa resident C. Richard Fassler posts signs to let Manoa residents know about increased crime in their neighborhood.

Another crime in Manoa?
It’s business as usual
for miscreants

A NEIGHBOR of mine -- a middle-aged woman -- thought she heard a man's voice in her home while she was taking a shower. After wrapping herself in a towel, she stepped into the kitchen where was shocked to discover a young, shirtless local male acting strangely, as if he were on drugs. She yelled at him and he fled the house. He had entered through an unlocked door. Since no one else was around to hear a disturbance, she could have been raped or murdered.

I asked her what the police were doing about the incident.

"I didn't call the police," she said.

"And why not?"

"I've been too busy with my job!"

A few days before, just down the street, another woman was home alone when three men tried to break into her house. They ran when they heard her call 911.

The next day, I saw a young man staring into the trunk of his white Honda across the street.

"They busted the lock!" he groaned. "My $1,500 stereo system. Gone."

I saw him again a few weeks later.

"Last night, they broke my window to get in! Now I've got a car alarm and a 'Club' for my steering wheel. I want to put these streets under video surveillance!"

While walking to work, I ran into an attorney who lives on the street behind my house.

"My car was broken into early Monday morning," she told me. "They cleaned out my glove compartment. They even took cardboard boxes with beach towels, and I think our neighbor's car was broken into, too!"

And so it goes in my upper-middle-class neighborhood in Lower Manoa, where crime has become an everyday occurrence: burglaries, car break-ins, mail theft and, yes, assaults and attempted assaults against University of Hawaii students.

Indeed, the level of crime has risen to the point where the presence of police cars in front of a home, or an officer's questioning of a suspect by the side of road, doesn't even rate a glance.

At our Manoa Neighborhood Board meetings, where the Honolulu Police Department is required to brief members on the most recent crimes, a report of a 50 percent increase in activity during the previous month is met with stony silence. You would think that 14 car break-ins during May would cause some excitement. Ho-hum. Receiving no questions from the assembled residents, the officers quickly disappear into the night.

What the board members didn't realize is that the number of car break-ins was probably closer to 20 or even more, because, like my neighbor in the shower, many people are not calling the cops. Why not?

Because, No. 1, we have a lot of crimes. It's "no big deal" anymore -- it's the price you pay for living in the valley. Police tell us that car break-ins are so common that people are not even locking their doors anymore -- they don't want their vehicles damaged. And No. 2, because residents feel that the chances of a thief's getting caught are infinitesimal.

That's why I don't believe the news reports that tell us property crime declined in Honolulu last year. In my 20 years as a Neighborhood Watch coordinator, I've never seen such a high level of activity. Just in Lower Manoa, I counted six crimes in one week in mid-June. Those are just the ones I know about. There were probably more. Sometimes I think the crooks are competing with each other to get to the goodies.

What are the police doing? Years ago, they established the Neighborhood Watch to make citizens their "eyes and ears" in the community. From time to time, they show some enthusiasm for Community Policing programs, but in my experience there's a high turnover rate for detectives and beat officers assigned to work with us, and I've found that many in the department hold a negative attitude about "part-time policemen" or "vigilantes."

The police are supposed to inform us when crimes occur so that we can alert our neighbors. That's how the program is supposed to work. But despite Manoa's high crime rate, I can't recall the last time an officer called to tell me of an incident. I get my information by stopping when I see police cars and talking to people at our community garden on McKinley Street.

Nowadays crimes are as common as potholes. Perhaps HPD is thinking (like my neighbors), "There's so much crime to report, why bother calling the Neighborhood Watch?" For car break-ins, it's rare when they send an officer, and if they do, you're going to wait an hour until he shows up. Police don't like -- or don't have the time -- to make house calls. Some victims call the station, but if the detective is busy, they might just hang up.

I place yellow flyers on trees and telephone posts to alert neighbors to our latest crime spree, and tell them to contact me if they've been hit. This usually brings three or four calls.

I always ask, "Did you call the police?"

"Why, no ..."

So I call the police to tell them of crimes. And I call to ask about crimes.

"Hello, Detective, can I find out more about this incident? Here's the police report number."

"I'm sorry. I don't have it."

"But it's been 24 hours."

"Do you realize that we have thousands of police reports? It could take months before it's placed on our computers."

What about the media? Aren't they interested and involved?

There was TV coverage of the attempted kidnapping and possible sexual assault of a college student on June 16, but our two largest dailies pretty much ignored the incident after it happened, and after a suspect was captured.

What? Here's a young woman, not unlike the thousands of other young women who attend college in Hawaii. On a sunny day, she's walking through our lovely, quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, near the driveway of the home of the head of our largest university. She's suddenly grabbed by a guy in a car who is not wearing pants and finds herself fighting for her life! And this isn't news? We'd rather hear about the missing Boy Scout in Utah?

I've only spoken about crimes against residents. Crimes against tourists also are rampant. Last summer, my daughter's boyfriend -- visiting from New York -- had his backpack, with cash and credit cards, stolen on Waikiki Beach -- about 50 yards from the police station. He returned to college and told about 40 of his friends about his unfortunate experience. This doesn't help our economy. Police tell me that beach thefts are a daily occurrence, but of course no warning signs can be posted because that would ruin our "island paradise" image.

Am I the only person in Hawaii who believes that our state is in deep trouble when such a vast amount of criminal activity is taken for granted?

I'm extremely worried because "ice" (crystal methamphetamine) use in the islands is raging out of control, and criminals on ice or other drugs tend to throw caution to the wind. In Lower Manoa, we've seen an increase in the number of break-ins while people are at home in the late afternoon or early evening. Two doors down, a woman's purse was stolen from her living room at 7 o'clock at night while she was in the kitchen. The thief entered through an open door. It's only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured -- or killed.

How pervasive is drug use in this state? A friend told me that a local company she knows recently offered a range of low-level jobs and hundreds responded to their ad. An unannounced drug test was administered. 97 percent of the applicants failed the test.

So, what's to be done?

Patrols? Video camera surveillance? Obviously a problem of this magnitude is going to require major surgery. The police need to come up with success stories to show us they're doing their job. The Legislature needs to increase penalties and pass laws that really take a "bite out of crime." The courts need to put people away so we won't read that crooks are being arrested 60 times before they spend meaningful time in jail. The schools need to do a better job of warning students against predators and, perhaps, teach them self-defense. The media need to take a greater role in both preventing crime and catching the bad guys. And the community needs to feel that there are things they can do to stop being victimized.

Here's another thought (perhaps you can come up with something, too).

I recommend that the governor or the lieutenant governor, together with the mayor of Honolulu, form a task force to explore ways to combat crime. The task force would be composed of people from their offices, together with representatives from HPD, UH, the Department of Education, the media, business and the community.

I don't know whether this will work. Perhaps it's been tried before. But, people, there's one thing I know for sure: Unless we act now, this crime crisis is going to get totally out of control.

Ask yourself this: If I do nothing, am I really prepared to face the consequences?

C. Richard Fassler is the Coordinator of the Lower Manoa Neighborhood Security Watch Program and an occasional Star-Bulletin contributor.

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