On the safe side


POSTED: Sunday, November 22, 2009

Crime in Hawaii has fallen to its lowest level since data collection started in 1975, with theft and murder rates plunging over the past decade.

“;It's huge news,”; said Paul Perrone, chief criminologist for the state Department of the Attorney General. “;It's undoubtedly quite surprising news for probably most people. Whenever you ask people what their perceptions of crime rates are at any point in time, the typical response is that crime is at the highest point it's ever been.”;

Led by a steep drop in property offenses, which account for the vast majority of crimes in Hawaii, the state's overall crime rate in 2008 dropped 13 percent over the previous year and 23 percent over the past decade. Altogether, 3,839 offenses per 100,000 residents were reported to police in 2008, down from 4,835 a decade earlier.

Murders have been nearly cut in half in the last 10 years, dropping by 46 percent. Robberies and rapes are holding steady. The only offense on an upswing is aggravated assault, which rose 40 percent since 1999.

The data is contained in a report, “;Crime in Hawaii 2008,”; recently posted online by the Department of the Attorney General's Research & Statistics Branch, which Perrone heads. It tracks “;index crimes”; reported to police, namely murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.





        Reported Offenses Per 100,000 Residents

The murder rate dropped by 46 percent over the last decade while larceny-theft fell by 29 percent. The only crime that rose substantially is aggravated assault, up 40 percent in 10 years.



Forcible rape30302428
Motor vehicle theft393796694397
Aggravated assault113133162158


        Sources: “;Crime in Hawaii 2008,”; Hawaii Department of the Attorney General. “;Crime in the United States 2008,”; U.S. Department of Justice.

Despite the downward trend, crime is still a top community concern for Hawaii's people. Residents cited the cost of living as their No. 1 issue and crime as No. 2, according to a survey released in September by the Department of the Attorney General titled “;Crime & Justice in Hawaii: 2008 Household Survey Report.”;

More than 51 percent of the respondents felt Hawaii's crime rate was higher than usual in 2008, and just 13 percent felt that it was lower. And 57 percent of residents surveyed said they were fearful of being the victim of a violent crime within a year.

That is out of proportion to the rate of violence in Hawaii. In 2008, 272 violent offenses were reported to police for every 100,000 residents, representing less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the population. Nationally, the number is 456 per 100,000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii women's studies professor and criminologist, said the media play a role in fueling the public perception of crime.

“;The local television stations just park their cameras by the courtroom and it's crime, crime, crime,”; Chesney-Lind said. “;It's very cheap to produce. So the public gets the impression that the crime problem is out of control.”;

Perrone said headlines highlight every upward blip in crime, but often ignore moves in the other direction.

Traditionally, Hawaii has had high rates of property crime and low rates of violent crime, while in other states the two measures generally track each other, Perrone said. So the big decline in property offenses is notable.

Asked what helped push the rate down, former Honolulu Police Chief Boisse Correa, who retired Sept. 1, said: “;There's no one answer. There are so many variables.”;

He added: “;Cooperation among all the stakeholders when it comes to law enforcement and police has never been better. The key words are accountability, urgency and partnerships. Everybody worked at it.”;

He cited a variety of initiatives, including a focus on high-intensity drug trafficking areas, the HOPE probation program, a safe-streets initiative, and getting serial offenders off the streets. Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle agreed that many factors are at work.

Larceny-theft dropped to 2,439 offenses last year for every 100,000 residents, falling 17 percent from the previous year and 29 percent over the decade. Motor vehicle thefts, which spiked at 796 per 100,000 residents in 2002, fell to 397 per 100,000 last year.

“;This office works hand in hand with the HPD on Operation Pitstop, which targets stolen vehicles, as well as the Property Crime Task Force, which targets individuals who are known to be thieves,”; Carlisle said. “;That has been working exceptionally well.”;

Even with the recent drop, Hawaii still has a higher rate of property crime than the national average. Hawaii residents reported 3,567 property crimes to police for every 100,000 residents in 2008, compared with 3,213 for the nation as a whole.

That's partly because Hawaii has a high tourist population and a relatively low resident population. The crime rate is the number of reported offenses per 100,000 residents. So the ratio is top-heavy in the islands.

“;It's counting the crimes against tourists, but not counting the tourists themselves,”; Perrone said.

Local residents also tend to report minor offenses more than in other states, which can push up Hawaii's rates, he added.

“;If somebody's stolen your garden hose in Honolulu, you might actually call police,”; Perrone said. “;If you live in Chicago and your garden hose is missing, you're probably not likely to call police, and they might laugh at you if you do.”;

Violent crime accounts for a tiny fraction, just 7 percent, of crimes reported in the islands last year. During the 1990s, the number of murders per 100,000 Hawaii residents averaged roughly four per year. This decade, it's been close to half of that. Last year, there were two murders per 100,000 inhabitants, down from 3.7 in 1999. Nationally, the murder rate was 5.4, up 5 percent over the decade.

Carlisle said murder rates were higher in the past here due partly to organized crime.

“;But now it basically boils down to, if you commit a murder, you are going to jail and you are getting a life sentence,”; Carlisle said. “;Hawaii is a very uninviting place to commit murder and the police department has a very high closure rate.”;

Hawaii's steep rise in aggravated assaults over the decade, however, is bucking the downward trend in crime. There were 158 aggravated assaults per 100,000 residents last year, up from 113 a decade earlier. Chesney-Lind said more assaults may be reported these days because “;we've gotten tougher on domestic violence and arrest is often considered a preferred response.”;

Perrone said crime tends to run in cycles, going up and down like a roller coaster, and it's tough to determine cause and effect.

“;One could probably develop a list of 200 factors that might be related to crime, and then there would be another couple hundred that you didn't think of,”; Perrone said. “;The statistical model would be so convoluted. The best answer to the $64,000 question is, 'I don't know why crime is up or why crime is down.'”;