GINOWAN, Okinawa — While anti-base protesters often complain about crimes U.S. servicemembers commit on Okinawa, recently released police statistics for 2009 show arrests of SOFA personnel dropped nearly 27 percent from the previous year.
During the current controversy swirling around closing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and moving the Marines to a new air facility in northeast Okinawa, opponents frequently cite “incidents and accidents” caused by personnel here under the Status of Forces Agreement as a key argument against any new base construction.
On Okinawa, even minor incidents involving U.S. troops are used as ammunition by base opponents.
“The decrease in off-base incidents shows that the constant message of ambassadorship is working,” Kadena Air Base spokesman Ed Gulick said Friday. “The vast majority of Kadena Air Base members understand that they are guests in Okinawa and are ambassadors for America, and their conduct reflects this.”
He added that military officials have noticed a decrease also in on-base crimes.
In recent years, tougher drunken driving laws in Japan have made it riskier to party off base. Japan has lowered its threshold to be considered driving while drunk to .03 percent blood-alcohol level. It also increased penalties and made all adult occupants of a vehicle criminally liable if the driver is drunk.
Okinawa crime statistics from 2003 through 2009 show the high mark was 2003, when 133 SOFA personnel were arrested in connection with 112 crimes.
In 2009, local police arrested 50 SOFA personnel in connection with 50 crimes. That’s down from 63 arrests in connection with 70 crimes the previous year, according to the statistics.
The number of crimes listed as “heinous” — which include murder, arson, robbery and rape — also was down from 2008, from seven then to three in 2009.
Those three included the Nov. 7 fatal hit-and-run that resulted in a charge of vehicular manslaughter against an Army staff sergeant, a robbery of a cab driver in August, and the attempted robbery of a pharmacy in April.
Crimes were up in two categories. Okinawa police arrested 15 people for violent crimes last year, nine more than 2008. Thefts were also up, from 14 in 2008 to 17 last year.
Police did not have comparable numbers for how many of those arrests led to indictments and convictions. In Japan, about 64 percent of arrests result in indictments, and some 99 percent of those cases end up as convictions.
Other U.S. officials on Okinawa would not comment directly on the overall decrease in SOFA-connected crimes. However, they all cited orientation programs for all incoming personnel that stress being “good neighbors” as contributing to the low crime rate.
“Leaders at all levels have worked continuously to reaffirm the trust, confidence and rapport we enjoy with the local community,” said Chip Steitz, spokesman for the U.S. Army on Okinawa. “Our programs and policies follow our sister services in an effort to reduce accidents and incidents involving our soldiers, whether on post or off.”
For example, Marines and their dependents on Okinawa are required to attend the “The Newcomer Orientation Welcome Aboard” seminar, which includes classes on Japanese culture, customs and courtesies, local laws, and other information. The seminar was expanded beginning in 2008 from four hours to eight hours.