While some businesses have shuttered and others have suffered downturns during the coronavirus pandemic, the old adage “crime never takes a holiday” is holding true.
While property crimes typically increase during the holiday season as thieves seek to reap the spoils of honest folks’ holiday shopping, it appears the pandemic has also fueled an increase in property offenses, according to police.
“I think we’ve seen a pretty noticeable uptick in a lot of property crimes — robberies, burglaries, thefts and auto thefts,” said Rio Amon-Wilkins of the Hilo Criminal Investigations Section earlier this month.
Auto theft, long a bane of Hawaii car owners, is one of those offenses that’s seen a dramatic increase.
In November 2019, prior to the pandemic, there were 52 auto thefts reported on the Big Island. Puna had the highest number with 20, followed by South Hilo with 15. No other Hawaii County district reported in double digits for auto thefts that month.
In November 2020, the number of auto theft reports islandwide rose to 76, a 46% increase from the same month last year. Almost a third of those, 23, were in South Hilo. There were 21 reports in Kona and 19 in Puna. It’s also an appreciable rise from the 65 reports of stolen vehicles in October this year.
High numbers of auto thefts in Hawaii are nothing new. The auto insurance industry website Carinsurancecomparison.com analyzed auto theft data from the Federal Highway Administration and National Insurance Crime Bureau for the years 2014-18 and found Hawaii ranked sixth among states with the highest vehicle theft rates, an average of 410 stolen vehicles per 100,000 population.
Burglary reports have also spiked during the pandemic, despite possible longer sentencing for those convicted of burglary during a declared emergency.
There were 192 reported burglaries on the Big Island during the two-month period of October and November 2019. In the same two months this year, that number shot up to 262 reported burglaries, a 36.5% increase.
Puna had 92 reported burglaries in October and November this year, one more than South Hilo. Those are huge increases compared to the 70 burglaries reported in Puna during those two months last year and the 52 in South Hilo for the same time frame.
As Amon-Wilkins noted, reports of other property offenses are up as well. For instance, reported auto break-ins during the past two months number 102, about 20% above the 82 reported during the same period last year. Again, possibly because of holiday shopping, Hilo is the place with the highest number of unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle reports, 35 in October and November. That compares to 27 reports each in Puna and Kona.
“A lot of it is just opportunity,” he said. “People can’t let their guard down. They’ve really got to be vigilant. People need to lock their vehicles, not leave valuables in their vehicles, make sure they park in well-lit areas when they can and get video surveillance systems for their residences.”
Police say they’ve also seen increases in mail theft, both incoming and outgoing, from residential mailboxes. They urge residents to install locked mailboxes at home to deter thieves and drop off outgoing mail at the post office or at a secure U.S. Postal Service drop box.
Amon-Wilkins said Hawaii Supreme Court-mandated reductions of prison and jail populations because of the pandemic — which has resulted in sizable COVID-19 outbreaks at Oahu Community Correctional Center and Halawa Correctional Facility, also on Oahu, as well as Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona — has resulted in an increase of habitual offenders in the community.
Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo, which was designed for 206 inmates had an inmate population of 395 on March 2. In the Department of Public Safety’s weekly population report on Dec. 7, HCCC reported 260 inmates — 215 men and 45 women.
“The court system is right now handling pretty much only in-custody cases,” Amon-Wilkins said. “I don’t think they’ve had a grand jury since May or June, so there’s definitely a huge backlog of cases in court, with the jails releasing people. And you see a lot of people getting supervised release (without cash bail) when they go to court, for (offenses) they didn’t used to get that for, because of the pandemic.”
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