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Last month, public-safety advocacy group SafeStreetsDC.com announced that the District had reclaimed its crack-era moniker as the Murder Capital of America. Using 2002 crime statistics for American cities with populations of half a million or more, the group found that D.C.’s murder rate of 45.8 homicides per 100,000 residents was tops in the United States. Last year’s leader, Detroit, finished second, followed by Baltimore, Memphis, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
But the city the District should be watching is at the other end of the list: No. 32, Honolulu.
In 2002, the 885,000 residents of the Aloha State’s capital suffered only 18 homicidesfor a rate of 2.0 homicides per 100,000. That’s less than one-twentieth of D.C.’s rate.
Honolulu shares many of the problems facing this town: a ceaseless influx of tourists, historic political disenfranchisement, humidity, and high unemployment among the native-born residents. Yet the Honolulu Police Department, which patrols the entire island of Oahu, has kept the murder rate lower than a yoga master in a limbo contest. And the bar keeps dropping: In 1999, there were 37 murders; 2000 and 2001 had 20 apiece. The Washington City Paper interviewed Detective Letha DeCaires of the Honolulu police to explore the differences.
CP: What factors do you think account for Honolulu’s low murder rate?
DeCaires: First, there’s the environment that we live in. We live on an island. People can’t drive away. People tend to be insular. People that are here tend to stay here. Of the cases that we have, most of them involve a relationship between parties that know each other. Thus they can be found and solved….
I’m from the Midwest. And there are some pushy, nasty people there. But here it’s laid-back, very laid-back.
Also, the investigators and detectives that work here in Honolulu are some of the best-trained in the nation. When people are trying to hire officers for departments in Portland and Seattle and L.A., they come here shopping for officers.
CP: Since the mid-’90s, the number of murders in Honolulu has dropped nearly by halffrom 38 murders in 1995 to 18 murders in 2002. What has the Honolulu PD done to decrease the number of homicides?
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DeCaires: Well, we’re frickin’ brilliant around here. When I talk to my counterparts on the mainland, they go, “What do you mean 20 a year? We have 20 a week.” The lifestyle that we live here, the quality of life here in Hawaii, there’s just no comparison. The quality of life and the attitude of the peoplewhat’s called the Aloha spiritrings true here in Honolulu.
We also have a really good relationship between the law-enforcement agencies. In Honolulu, as a police officer, I’m a highway-patrol officer, a metropolitan police officer, and a detective….The sharing of information is really good.
CP: Are there any types of crimes that are currently on the rise in Honolulu?
DeCaires: Well, we’ve had some real difficulties with property crimes over the last couple of years. Unfortunately, we have one of the highest property-crime rates. But if you have to choose something, I’d rather have less violence. We think that the problems with the property crime rate [have] to do with the problems we have with crystal methamphetamine, or icewhich you guys don’t have as much of in Washington, D.C.
CP: What kind of property crimes?
DeCaires: Breaking into vehicles. Auto theft. Burglaries. Identity theft. Financial fraud. We’re concerned that there may be a nexus between the use of crystal methamphetamine and property theft.
CP: With murders happening so infrequently, how do you keep the members of the homicide detail from getting bored?
DeCaires: They’re working all the cold cases using the new forensic technology. Also, our homicide division closes any death cases. If it was a suicide, or an unattended death…they investigate all of those cases. And they take care of all of our missing-person cases. Our homicide division is not large. There are eight guys on the whole team and one woman.
CP: How do you recruit new members for the homicide division?
DeCaires: Homicide detail is the most elite and most sought-after position within the police department. There’s no recruitment problem for that. People are standing in line and putting in their time to have the opportunity to be in that unit.
CP: In 2001, your department had a 100 percent clearance rate on murders. Do you think it’s easier to solve murder cases on an island?
DeCaires: It’s hard to say. Part of it may be because of where we live. Part of it may be that we quickly utilize our resources and share information quickly. It may be multiple factors.
CP: Do you have any advice for other municipalities, such as Washington, D.C., that are struggling to lower their homicide rates?
DeCaires: We have incredible community support. If your community stands behind you, your officers are confident and will try and do a better job. We’ve got a police chief who believes in open communication. We’ve got a police chief that allows a very close relationship with the media. When you’re not hiding things, you don’t have to worry about things. CP