Crime Cameras in Waikiki

The introduction of 40 new 360-degree surveillance cameras in Waikiki is meant to deter crime, but some say this poses a risk to our communal right to privacy.

By: Clarissa Gonzales, Mark Anthony Ladao and Tyne Phillips

15 May 2019

  • The Breakdown: Waikiki’s Crime Cameras
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  • Clarissa Gonzales, Mark Anthony Ladao and Tyne Phillips
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Following a string of highly-publicized crimes against tourists in Waikiki, the tourist epicenter is all but set to be outfitted with dozens of new surveillance cameras.

 

And there appears to be overwhelming support from everyone — businesses, police, government officials and even residents.

“With the unveiling of our new public safety package in Waikiki, we plan to continue to make safety a top priority for years to come,” said Andrew Pereira, the Honolulu mayor’s communications director, in an email.

The other representatives said they, too, believed in the benefits of additional cameras. Robert Finley, chair of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, said the board has been asking for more.

 

Many representatives at the conference brought up specific crimes in Waikiki and highlighted incidents with mentally ill homeless people. Jessica Lani Rich, president of VASH, reminded the audience of recent incidents of tourists being attacked by homeless people.

There are about 127 Honolulu Police personnel stationed in Waikiki alone, according to HPD officials. Like Waters, most supporters of community policing want more officers on the street to establish a good rapport with people in the neighborhood.

 

However, Jarod Hiramoto, acting major for HPD’s District 6, said officers are already trying to connect with community members with the officers they currently have on patrol.

 

“We also encourage our officers to get out of their car ... talk with the community, talk with the businesses ... help facilitate communications and relationships,” he said.

At the conference, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard emphasized the need to push homeless people out of Waikiki and into housing.

HPD officials say the additional 40 cameras will most likely be rolled out over the next two years.

 

Former Honolulu City Councilman Michael Formby, whose district included Waikiki, said the cameras could be implemented simply for their presence, insinuating that criminals will be deterred once they realize they are being recorded.

 

“Those who decided to install more cameras, the belief was that the presence of the cameras would deter criminal activity,” Formby said. “If the activity happens, I think there’s some belief that they can use the cameras to go back and see exactly what happened.”

 

There are already traffic cameras and private cameras from businesses in Waikiki, as well as 10 existing crime cameras on the streets.

Despite the outpouring of support from organizations, there is some opposition to the cameras. American Civil Liberties Union Hawaii President Joshua Wisch opposes the cameras and says the privacy of residents and hotel users should be taken into account.

“How do we know that those cameras aren’t going to be used to be focused into people’s apartment windows, to be focused into hotel windows?” Wisch said. “What policies and procedures are going to be put in place to prevent that?”

 

Formby mentioned the possibility of blocking out certain parts of the cameras to help maintain privacy. Wisch said the idea might work, and it would be worth trying, depending on the method used to block the cameras.

HTA promised a $300,000 grant toward the purchase and installation of the cameras in order to maintain Waikiki’s reputation and economic growth, according to the contract between HTA and the city and county. WBIDA President and Executive Director Jennifer Nakayama said the association donated $75,700 to the effort. Honolulu City and County officials are slated to give $364,300 of taxpayer money toward the effort, according to the contract.

“The opportunity came up and our board was very supportive...let’s do something that can help reduce crime in Waikiki,” Nakayama said.

In addition to the monetary value HTA and WBIDA put toward the effort, city officials received overwhelming support from prominent Waikiki organizations for their proposal to reduce crime in Waikiki by adding surveillance cameras.

 

At an annual Visitor Public Safety conference, put on by the Hawaii Tourism and Lodging Association, all seven organizations at the conference voiced their support.

Honolulu City and County officials partnered with the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Waikiki Business Improvement District Association to implement the 40 additional cameras with 360-degree surveillance capabilities.

 

The total projected cost of the project is $750,000. This includes the cameras, installation expenses, server and controller, cables and other materials, data backhaul equipment and additional staff to monitor the cameras.

The organizations represented include the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, Hawaii Hotel Visitor Industry Security Association, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Institute for Human Services, Retail Merchants of Hawaii and Adult Friends for Youth.

 

“Cameras are the best witness,” Jerry Dolak, president of the Hotel Visitor Security Association, said. “They are more accurate than any person that witnessed anything.”

“A visitor was here for her birthday, and she was stabbed in the back of the neck on Kuhio Avenue just waiting to cross the street,” Rich said about a case VASH assisted with which involved a mentally ill person. “Obviously, it’s a birthday she’s always going to remember.”

 

HPD officials said the tourism industry makes up about 21 percent of Hawaii’s economy. Tourism is the biggest single contributor to Hawaii’s economy, providing nearly $18 billion to the state in 2018, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism website.

In the first three months of 2019, Honolulu Police Department officials recorded 8,915 incidents in Waikiki. Most were non-violent crimes, like theft and car break-ins, in which the victims were usually visitors. Violent crimes like assault were mainly committed by and toward local residents.

 

Tommy Waters, councilman for Honolulu’s District 4, said surveillance cameras help reduce crime, but he said it’s not enough.

 

“I think the best deterrent is a police officer on the ground, in the area,” he said. “I’d like to see more police officers in Waikiki. ...There’s no substitute for a police officer.”

 

A study by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service suggests that cameras are only effective in conjunction with another method, such as community policing.

“Make it uncomfortable,” Ballard said. “Make it an unwelcome place for them to be.”

 

One suggestion she made was to take out benches in the neighborhood.

 

Hiramoto elaborated on Ballard’s comments, saying that the goal is to encourage them to seek help to avoid chronic homelessness.

 

“It’s just to make them uncomfortable, to seek social services and sheltering, because we don’t want them to just feel comfortable here,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t want to do that, too, and they’ll just take the arrest. They’ll take the citation.”

 

The Honolulu City and County Department of Transportation Services will be responsible for installing the cameras with the help of the Department of Information Technology to get the cameras’ connectivity working, according to the contract between the Honolulu City and County and HTA.

Cameras will be monitored at the Waikiki substation by police officers, City and County officials and contracted employees from WBIDA, called “aloha ambassadors.”

 

Hiramoto said that this system, which is already being used to monitor the existing ten cameras, allows for officers on patrol to be alerted as crimes occur.

Hiramoto said the locations of the cameras were chosen based on areas of high crime while taking into account the infrastructure already in place – the cameras must be placed on streetlight poles so they can be attached to a source of electricity.

Wisch also said that the cameras could be susceptible to hacking and abuse and, without the right policies in place, might also be used in harmful ways that are still legal, such as tracking a cheating partner or finding embarrassing footage of a coworker.

 

If the surveillance cameras pose a threat to people’s privacy, like Wisch says, that brings up the question of whether officials should allow the video footage to be available to the public and to what extent.

 

There will be public hearings regarding the locations of the 40 surveillance cameras so that residents will have an opportunity to comment on their locations. While these hearings have not been announced yet, Nakayama said that residents of buildings near the proposed camera locations will be notified of the time and date of future hearings.

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A surveillance camera on a traffic pole overlooks a busy intersection on Kalakaua Ave. in the heart of Waikiki. Photo by Mark Anthony Ladao.