Crime Watch: What’s With All the Brazen Attacks in Honolulu the Past Year?
Violent purse snatchings and robberies in the last year left people feeling unsettled. We take a look behind the headlines.
Derek Lum remembers the day. He was playing video games at home when his dog started barking.The Leeward Community College student thought the barking was aimed at his mom returning home from work. He told his dog to stop; when she wouldn’t, he opened his bedroom door and found himself face to face with three robbers.
“They held me against my will with a knife and demanded a lot of things,” Lum says. “They asked for car keys and credit cards.”
Honolulu’s acting prosecuting attorney, Dwight Nadamoto, has been seeing this happen: robberies taking place while residents are in the house so that criminals can demand car keys. “Then they actually would steal the car and they would commit other crimes, like purse snatchings,” Nadamoto says. This might have happened in the incident with Lum—but luckily the keys were with his father who was not at home.
After several hours, Lum’s neighbors became concerned about the nonstop barking and called 911. The three robbers as well as their getaway driver were gone by the time police arrived and the case remains open as a first-degree robbery. At least $300 in cash, a tablet and Lum’s phone were stolen and never recovered. Lum says the robbery changed his behavior and he always keeps the doors locked now, “no matter what.”
In the last year, other headlines in Honolulu have paralleled Lum’s story—and they’ve been making residents nervous: “Woman viciously beaten in purse snatching at grocery store parking lot” (Hawai‘i News Now), “Purse snatcher who targeted Chinatown senior caught by victim’s son” (KITV4) and “Attempted Mililani robbery ends with shooting” (Honolulu Star-Advertiser). Has it been as bad as the headlines make it seem?
Honolulu has seen an increase in robberies, including purse snatchings, according to Police Chief Susan Ballard, who shared crime data during a City Council committee meeting in February. There were 952 robberies in 2019, which was up from 807 in 2018. While there was only a slight increase in purse snatchings in 2019, the first month of 2020 saw a significant rise. “January 2020 looks bad to be completely open and honest with you,” Ballard told council members.
Violent crimes (homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults) rose from 2,494 cases in 2018 to 2,627 in 2019. Honolulu is often praised for its low rate of gun violence compared to other states, but HPD statistics for 2019 show the use of guns in robberies increased 45% from the previous year.
Many of these are crimes of opportunity, Ballard says, describing groups of adults or juveniles looking to steal a purse or other valuables without a struggle. Seniors and tourists are being targeted, although police only recently started tracking this. Ballard says it is challenging for the Honolulu Police Department to catch suspects because they often don’t get basic descriptions. “Try to remember what the suspect looked like, what they were wearing, and the vehicle description and license plate, if possible,” Ballard said in an email interview.
Michael Kitchens, who started Stolen Stuff Hawai‘i, a Facebook group where people can share information or footage of illicit activity in hopes of catching criminals or recovering stolen items, has noticed an increase in postings about audacious violent criminal activity. “One of the things we’re seeing more of is teams of criminals. One person driving the car. One person stalking their victim, making the theft … and then running off to the guy in the car,” Kitchens says.
Since its launch in 2014, Stolen Stuff Hawai‘i, or SSH, has grown to include more than 130,000 members, who are mostly Hawai‘i residents, and 18 volunteer moderators. SSH requires people to file a police report before posting about a crime, and opposes vigilantism.
“We also have a pretty good relationship with the HPD, because we are helping to provide them information in a much quicker way than would normally happen,” Kitchens says. “Essentially, SSH acts as an extra 130,000 eyes for HPD.” For example, after images of a suspected robber were posted in the group, another member identified the person and passed the information along to law enforcement.
Watching videos or looking at photos of a crime is often an emotional experience, and even strangers are outraged and want to help those who have been victimized, Kitchens says. “It’s so helpful to identify people,” Kitchens says about video footage. “They’ll notice the way they walk. What they’re wearing. They’ll recognize tattoos. There’s all these little things they can use.”
Sounds simple. But for victims, logging those descriptions can be challenging. Lum says it was hard to describe the suspects’ physical appearance to the police after the robbery, because during it he “was more focused on surviving.” He remembers what the men were wearing, and knows that they smelled of methamphetamine, also known as meth, batu or ice, “’cause my uncle used to take ice, so I knew that horrid smell.”
“My take on this is that it’s probably drug-related,” Nadamoto says when asked about the increase in crime. He says a lot of what is being seen recently is probationers committing new offenses, many of them connected to meth.
— Susan Ballard
While drugs, especially opiates, are a problem throughout the U.S., Hawai‘i is well-known for its crystal meth problem. In 2017, the state had 7.4 meth-related deaths for every 100,000 residents; the average nationwide was 3.2 meth-related deaths per 100,000 people. Meth is extremely addictive and long-term use is known to cause changes in brain structure and function, paranoia, hallucinations and violent behavior. Withdrawal symptoms are intense and there is no medication to treat meth addiction.
“We have a meth epidemic,” Nadamoto says. “In the mid- to late-’90s, we had the strongest meth laws. Every offense was jail. It’s changed. Now, unless you’re selling to a 4-year-old or a juvenile, you have a chance of probation. I’m not saying we should put everyone in jail, but at least it gives us some teeth.” Nadamoto supports harsher penalties for repeat offenders who are convicted of promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree, which includes possession of any amount.
Another key part, Nadamoto says, is hiring more probation officers, who are part of the judiciary system and supervise probationers, often coordinating rehabilitation services and implementing drug tests. “If you want to let more people off pretrial, then you’re going to have to get more probation officers to keep an eye on them,” Nadamoto says. “You just can’t decide we’re going to let everybody out. You have to build the infrastructure around it.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s budget proposal included money for about 100 new positions for the Honolulu Police Department, but Ballard says it could still take several years to fill all the current vacancies—more than 200 positions. Ballard said at the council meeting that a pay increase for Honolulu police officers would help recruit and retain more people. After completing paid training, an HPD officer’s starting salary is $66,900 per year, according to HPD’s website. The federal government considers a single person living on O‘ahu low-income if they earn less than $67,500.
Ballard listed a number of ideas that HPD is implementing to fight crime, especially robberies: more use of automatic license-plate readers that track stolen vehicles, which are often used to commit other crimes; stepping up enforcement of bicycle registration since criminals sometimes use stolen bikes to commit crimes; making sure patrol vehicles keep their blue LED lights on day or night for more visibility; and being more assertive about sharing safety tips with seniors and tourists who are often the targets of crime.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature was considering new firearm laws, including one that would make assembling an unregistered gun, something Ballard expresses concern about, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. “We have more and more guns coming into the island because of this,” Ballard says. “I can’t remember any case where a weapon was used that it was registered. It is all unregistered guns, or defaced serial numbers, or guns that were stolen in burglaries.
“One of the things that we really want to try and do is what we call a real-time crime center,” Ballard says, which would be a central location in the Honolulu Police Department that would monitor surveillance cameras at O‘ahu hot spots. She did not present a timeline or plan for how this would happen.
She says detectives also need to look for similarities between suspects, locations and times of day that crimes are happening, describing a common scene on crime shows such as Hawai‘i Five-0 and Law and Order where detectives use pushpins on a map to find connections. “We need to be smarter about analyzing our crimes.”
Caught on Camera
Smart security systems are among the fastest growing industries for homes. And many homeowners are sharing their videos and images of criminal activity on social media. But does the footage really catch criminals?
Michael Kitchens, founder of Stolen Stuff Hawai‘i, encourages people to first file a police report, sharing any evidence with officials. “As you’ve probably heard, the first 48 hours is the most important part when it comes to crime,” Kitchens says. Posting surveillance videos in SSH’s Facebook group or in other anti-crime communities online will quickly garner thousands of views, increasing the chances of getting a tip.
Video evidence can be helpful in court. “Sometimes [it’s] just the knowledge by the defense that the complaining witness has provided video to police, which now we have, so it’s part of the case,” says Brooks Baehr, the prosecuting attorney’s public information officer. “Then they might be more willing to come up with some type of plea deal or admit their guilt … because the evidence is strong.”
Make sure at least one of your surveillance cameras is placed at eye level. “The Ring camera is a great one, for example; that’s right at eye level, so that when somebody comes up you can see into their face,” Kitchens says. “Too many times people get the security cameras and they are so high that all you are doing is getting a head-down shot,” often an image of the top of someone’s head, which can make it hard to identify them.
Tips to protect yourself:
Don’t play on your phone when you’re walking around. “HPD encourages people of all ages to pay attention to their surroundings and avoid distractions, including texting and video games,” says Police Chief Susan Ballard.
“You need to get as many deterrents as possible,” says Stolen Stuff Hawai‘i founder Michael Kitchens. “If it’s your home, get an alarm, motion-sensor lights and security cameras, which must be placed in the right spot. For cars, an alarm, fuel-switch cutoff and the locking mechanisms for your steering wheel. Every deterrent gives you a few seconds.”
“Carry only what you need and leave valuables, like extra cash and expensive jewelry, at home,” says Ballard.
“Go out with a friend or in a group,” Ballard recommends.
Always be ready. “When walking to your car, have your keys in your hand ready to unlock your doors. If you see a suspicious person or car, walk up to a crowd or into a building,” says Ballard.
Get a guard dog. “As someone who loves animals, I’d suggest adopting a dog and giving them a good home with lots of care and companionship,” says Ballard.
And Kitchens encourages always reporting crimes to HPD and working with the judicial system.