View Point

Friday, January 9, 1998

Crimes against island tourists harm everyone

A well-publicized crime wave nearly sank Florida's economy and it could happen here, too

By Mufi Hannemann

IT won't take a crime wave to destroy tourism in Hawaii. An industry that depends so much on image - and which has been suffering through a prolonged downturn - needs only a few well-publicized crimes to send it into a nose-dive from which it may not recover.

This was the alarm sounded at the Visitor Crime Solutions Conference, held in December in Waikiki.

The event was organized by the City and County of Honolulu, state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, and Hawaii Visitor Industry Security Association to propose solutions to crimes against visitors.

"Tourism is based on perception rather than reality," said Peter Tarlow, the Texas A&M University tourism expert who served as keynote speaker. "People don't go to a place they think is unsafe, but they won't necessarily go someplace because it's safe...You have to make sure people won't not want to come here."

Florida is a case in point. When a number of tourists were killed there several years ago, extensive media coverage was all it took to create the perception that the state was unsafe, even though it didn't have a serious crime problem.

Florida had to post 24-hour guards along its highways, erect warning signs statewide and develop a very strong police presence. After spending millions of dollars, its visitor industry is beginning to recover.

Hawaii could experience a similar fate if effective steps aren't taken immediately. Gleaning some of the best ideas from Tarlow, and the civic and law enforcement officials from throughout the country who spoke at the conference, here are some suggestions to help curb crime and thereby support the local visitor industry:

Step up community involvement. Just about every speaker spoke of the importance of community involvement in fighting crime. And while "partnerships" seems to be an overused word these days, the full cooperation of business, government and community leaders and organizations has been essential in successful revitalization efforts throughout the nation.

Downtown Portland business and civic leaders formed a nonprofit group to oversee the security and cleanliness of the area. Arizona's Maricopa County deputized 2,000 volunteers to fight crime.

The San Diego Police Department tapped the local business community to identify prostitutes and file restraining orders against them.

Oahu has many of the same elements in place - HPD's Community Policing program, business and trade associations, community groups - but more needs to be done. Community and business groups must take the lead in partnering with HPD and government to improve security, combat prostitution and drug peddling, and keep the streets and sidewalks clean.

Establish special assessment districts. Portland established a special assessment district for the downtown area, in which property owners pay a tax, collected by the city government, which is then used for supplemental sanitation and security services. Taxpayers have a say - via committee - in how the money is spent.

Portland has used its funds to hire security officers, establish horse and bike patrols, have a prosecutor tackle downtown crime, hire crews to remove graffiti and clean the streets, and even help formerly homeless people find private-sector jobs.

Increase police presence. A strong police presence on the streets of New York City has done wonders in reducing that city's crime rate, thereby benefiting its tourism industry. A zero-tolerance policy has meant that police are aggressive in pursuing criminal offenses, both large and small. There's no reason Hawaii can't pursue a similar policy.

Make police officers approachable and identifiable. Police officers in aloha shirts and baseball caps instead of regulation blue? Officers on bikes instead of zooming by in police cars? We should develop these and other ideas to keep police identifiable but approachable.

Invite law enforcement representation. Considering the importance of security to tourism, the law enforcement sector is rarely represented on tourism and economic development governing bodies, except where traffic or crowd control is a concern.

Couldn't a strong case have been made, for example, to include law enforcement representation on the state's Economic Revitalization Task Force? There's no reason people in the police department, security industry and criminal justice system shouldn't participate in setting policies and contributing their ideas to the future of tourism.

Boost video surveillance. Virginia Beach, a tourist town, has installed video cameras to improve security, strengthen prosecution of criminals and stretch its resources. Lt. Greg Mullen of the VBPD reported that two officers and 10 video cameras can do the same job as 30 officers. Tourists like the video surveillance because it makes them feel safer.

Jadel Roe, chief deputy of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, said her county has video cameras on dogs for surveillance purposes. Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Lalli of Las Vegas claimed video has proven its worth in prosecuting criminals, in detecting crimes undetected by others and as a deterrent. Lalli added that video evidence reduces court time because criminals tend to plea bargain once they see themselves on tape.

Honolulu has begun installing video cameras in Chinatown and Waikiki; however, we need to do more.

Increase prison bed space. Criminals commit crimes with impunity, knowing their chances of doing hard time are slim. The situation is particularly acute with crimes against visitors, because tourists are reluctant to return to testify in court.

Panelist and District Judge Marcia Waldorf said we need "credibility of appropriate consequence" for a criminal justice system to be effective, i.e. if we have a house rule, we should mean it and enforce it. Shortages of prison space preclude us from meting out appropriate punishment to wrong-doers.

The above ideas will work only if the community has the will to make them a reality. Speaker after speaker at the Visitor Crime Solutions Conference told of the importance of teamwork and citizen involvement in successful anti-crime initiatives.

Unless we all join in making this a better place for residents and visitors, we may find ourselves in an economic downturn from which we will never recover.

Mufi Hannemann is a member of the Honolulu City Council.

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