Fewer people in Waikiki during the pandemic-related drop in travel and government lockdowns caused a dramatic decline in most crimes in 2020, with thefts, robberies and sex assaults down more than half and other assaults dropping by more than 40%.
Waikiki, usually the busiest neighborhood and resort district in the state, looked like a ghost town for most of the past year. COVID-19 contributed to a 75% plunge in Oahu’s visitor arrivals in 2020, and government restrictions also closed Waikiki restaurants for a time, and bars for most of the year.
With fewer workers commuting to Waikiki and tourists’ rental cars mostly absent, the number of motor vehicle accidents in the area also fell, from 2,200 in 2019 to 750 in 2020, according to Honolulu Police Department statistics. Thefts, meanwhile, dropped from 1,000 cases to 500, and robberies from 100 to 50. Waikiki assaults declined from 600 incidents to 340 and sex assaults from 90 to 40.
The 2020 crime statistics for Waikiki — at just 1.5 square miles the smallest of HPD’s eight patrol districts — are a vast improvement over 2019, when Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters and state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, who both represent the tourism district, co-hosted a crime and safety town hall in response to a wave of property and violent crimes that had residents on edge.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told attendees at the virtual Visitor Public Safety Conference hosted by the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association on Tuesday that Waikiki got somewhat of a reprieve from crime during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t mean police are letting down their guard, she said, especially since burglaries, break-ins and car thefts in Waikiki remained virtually unchanged from 2019.
Police also continue to grapple with issues surrounding homelessness.
“The tourists are starting to come back. It’s spring break and of course we’re seeing more and more people flying into the islands,” Ballard said. “Now that they are coming back, what safety concerns do we have? Things are still a little light, but of course one of the big perennial things we have all over the island is the homeless situation.”
On Friday, Honolulu police were out in full force in Waikiki, with a number of patrol cars and all-terrain vehicles monitoring the district. Members from HPD’s newest graduating class are augmenting the highly visible police presence in Waikiki.
Police officer Jose “Tony” De Leon, Waikiki substation commander, was on foot Friday at Kuhio Beach, where he regularly walks. He said he’s aiming to build bonds with Waikiki regulars, who can help police keep the district safe.
He is a source of information for visitors, who he says sometimes let down their guard too much. De Leon’s presence at the beach also is a deterrent for would-be criminals.
Before the pandemic, De Leon said, he’d have at least one to two beach theft cases a day. Police are expecting crimes to “spike as visitors come back,” he said.
Waters said he has gotten complaints this year about homeless individuals trespassing and damaging property at the Kuhio Beach pavilions, city bus stops, the Ala Wai Canal promenade and bridge, various 7-Eleven locations, and in public and private parking lots. He also has gotten reports of homeless individuals aggressively accosting residents.
Waters said “crime continues to be a problem in our community and we must keep fighting together, working together to solve these problems.”
Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann also anticipates an uptick in crime once the masses return to Waikiki.
“We as an industry want to get out in front of this. We need to support enforcement efforts so these things don’t take hold again and create another problem for us as we struggle to rebound and get back,” he said.
One of Waikiki’s best selling points for visitors, according to Hannemann, is that it is viewed as a safe and secure destination.
Ivanna Park, a repeat visitor from Bloomington, Ind., said Friday the perception that Waikiki is safe is a reason she keeps coming back, although “you can’t beat the views and the weather.”
“It feels different here. It does feel safer here. In big cities like Chicago or D.C., I tend to have my guard up,” Park said. “I’ve been coming to Hawaii for 30 years and I have seen homelessness increase. That’s unfortunate, but I still feel safe.”
Hannemann said Waikiki’s visitor industry and other community members have supported programs that offer assistance to the district’s homeless population, including funding that helps support airfare for homeless individuals to return to the mainland. They also have funded programs like Adult Friends for Youth, which provides alternatives to gang membership. And they have worked to cover more of Waikiki in security cameras that assist law enforcement.
Waters said keeping Waikiki safe for visitors and residents must stay a priority. That’s why he’s pushing for more officer bike and foot patrols.
Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley wrote to Waters earlier this month seeking assistance in dealing with issues of crime and homelessness that have emerged this year. He said he would also like to see HPD bring one of its new short-term mobile homeless outreach programs to Waikiki.
“They did it next door to where my brother lives on Isenberg and it was very successful,” Finley said. “The first people to run were the drug dealers. So many homeless people came and were given an opportunity to get services and housing.”
HPD, along with the city Department of Community Services and service providers, partnered in December 2019 to launch the Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons program. The goal of HONU, which moves locations about every 90 days, is to provide short-term shelter services and “navigation to connect homeless individuals and families to longer-term shelter and other housing options.”
HPD Lt. Joseph O’Neal, who spoke at last week’s public safety conference, said HONU transitioned in April into the Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage program to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. O’Neal said that from April to December, the program helped 810 people, including 434 who were able to move into more permanent housing.
“It’s currently at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park, where we’re transitioning back to the HONU mobile navigation model,” he said. “I’d love to see some of these programs actually assist the Waikiki area. We know that arresting people won’t solve the problem of homelessness — sometimes it just actually creates more harm than good. We found a great diversionary model in HONU that has more success.”