91% of major crimes unsolved in Honolulu
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
Honolulu police solved major crimes at a rate of less than 9 percent last year, the lowest in nearly three decades and lower than Mainland cities with comparable populations, according to a recent report by the Attorney General's Office.
The figure is also lower than the average clearance rate of 15.6 percent last year for Mainland cities with a similar population, according to the FBI's Crime in the United States 2002.
According to the report covering eight categories of major property and violent crimes last year, police cleared burglaries at the lowest rate, followed by motor-vehicle theft, larceny theft, robbery, aggravated assault, murders and rape.
Honolulu police are concerned, but perplexed by the clearance rate, which has been dropping since 1998.
"We don't have an explanation right now," said Maj. Mark Nakagawa, head of the department's Criminal Investigation Division.
Police officials, however, said more manpower is needed to deal with the rising rate of crime and they say property offenses, which accounted for more than 95 percent of the crimes, are harder to solve because they often do not have any witnesses.
They also cite statistics that show the overall clearance rate for this year has improved a percentage point to 9.7 percent.
But more manpower doesn't necessarily ensure a higher rate of clearance, the statistics show. In 1998 when police were solving crimes at the highest rate in the past decade, 16.9 percent, the department employed almost 200 fewer officers than last year, when the clearance rate was a record low.
Bruce Rosen, a 47-year-old Manoa resident, is one of thousands of property crime victims on O'ahu.
His home was burglarized and thieves made off with his daughter's $700 Kamaka 'ukulele. He said the break-in saddened him and he is concerned that the department is solving burglaries at such a low rate. "It doesn't make me feel too good and it doesn't give me a lot of confidence in them (the police)," Rosen said.
Another crime victim, Jeannie Hedberg, 60, of Wai'alae Iki, lost $40,000 worth of family jewelry when her home was burglarized twice in nine weeks during February and April this year.
Hedberg was working in her garden the first time she was burglarized, 20 feet from where thieves rummaged through her purse and stole her jewelry. Hedberg bought an alarm, but that did not deter the burglars from striking again.
She said she is angry and disappointed about the Police Department's low rate of property crime clearance. "It's the violation. I live alone. Do you know how terrifying it is to know that twice in nine weeks I was targeted?" Hedberg said. "I am not happy about the low clearance rate, but I am in no position to know whether or not they (the police) have enough money budgeted to work on this."
The Crime in Hawai'i 2002 report defines an offense as cleared if it is resolved by arrest or by exceptional means. Those means cover cases in which the offender is known, but for reasons outside the control of law enforcement, the offender cannot be arrested, charged and prosecuted. Examples include suicides, a deathbed confession or denied extradition.
A clearance rate is "a success rate, no doubt about it, and the success rate is going down," said Gary Fleck, a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.
The clearance rate for the state in 2002 was 10.5 percent for 75,238 major crimes. The rates for the Neighbor Island counties were: 22.6 percent for 6,936 cases, Hawai'i County; 16.1 percent for 3,045 cases, Kaua'i County; and 10.4 percent for 7,986 cases, Maui County, which also covers Lana'i and Moloka'i. The Hawai'i County figures are undergoing a review for minor adjustments after the FBI identified a quirk in the method used to calculate clearance rates.
With the lowest rate, O'ahu fueled the statewide drop because the island's 57,271 major crimes were 76 percent of the state total.
O'ahu's rate of 8.7 percent was also less than half the average clearance rate of 18.4 percent for Pacific region law enforcement agencies last year, according to the FBI report. Those include 1,118 law enforcement agencies serving a population of nearly 44 million people.
Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said clearance rates should not be used as a bottom line measure for a police department's effectiveness because the rates are easily influenced by factors outside the control of law enforcement.
For example, Blumstein said many criminals will claim responsibility for crimes they didn't commit to gain favorable treatment from police. He cited burglaries as an example of a crime that is difficult to clear because unless you catch the burglar in the act, no one knows who the perpetrator is.
He said low clearance rates are not necessarily indicative of poor policing nor is a high clearance rate indicative of good police work. But, he said, Honolulu's falling rate deserves an explanation.
"If it's (clearance rate) going down last year you want to know why, if it's really going down over a number of years you really want to know why," Blumstein said.
Although they can't explain the drop in the clearance rate, Honolulu police officials said they need more officers.
"One thing we've been trying to do to solve that problem for several years now is to fill our vacancies," Deputy Chief Paul Putzulu said. "The more staffing you have, the better you're able to follow up on leads and continue investigations."
The department has 263 vacancies for active-duty officers. The department also has 192 officers involved in varying levels of training.
Police officials said the clearance rate jumped a percentage point this year with the clearance of 2,952 of 30,541 major offenses reported between January and July. The cases solved also includes five murders last year, which means 15 of the 18 murders on O'ahu last year are now solved.
Police also agree with Blumstein that one problem is solving crimes without witnesses. Nakagawa said property crimes are the most difficult to solve because the victims tend not to know the thieves and rarely do victims witness the crime being committed. They said their clearance rate is heavily affected by property crimes, particularly larceny theft.
Hawai'i's rate of 3,963.7 larceny-thefts per 100,000 residents was the highest in the nation last year. Of the 54,670 property crimes, 37,250 were larceny-theft cases. Police on Oahu solved property crimes at a rate of 7.6 percent. The national average for cities of similar size is 11.9 percent, according to the FBI report.
Larceny theft is defined as the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession of another.
Nakagawa said the department needs more input from residents to help solve certain property crimes.
"We have no control over the circumstances given us to investigate," Nakagawa said. "We need citizens more willing to report their observations to us; people may see the crime occurring but for whatever reason they may decide not to give a statement to our officers."
David Johnson, a sociologist at the University of Hawai'i, said the clearance rate is also a function of some factors outside of police control, such as solidarity of society or the propensity of people to cooperate with police officers.
"So a high or low clearance rate may not be all attributable to police behavior," Johnson said.
Former Police Chief Mike Nakamura said the crime rate numbers could be misleading because the department makes a case out of almost every reported crime, while other Mainland jurisdictions don't.
"You get your license plate stolen, we make a case out of that; you get your bike stolen, we make a case out of that," he said. "We record more crime in Hawai'i than other jurisdictions. Its a more accurate count."
Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.