GINOWAN, Okinawa — While anti-base protesters often complain about crimes that U.S. servicemembers commit here, recently released police statistics for 2009 show arrests of SOFA personnel dropped nearly 21 percent from the previous year.
With 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 have cited “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.
And U.S. officials are equally quick to point out that they are focused on reining in off-base misbehavior.
“The decrease in off-base incidents shows that the constant message of ambassadorship is working,” Kadena Air Base spokesman Ed Gulick said last week. “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.”
Okinawa crime statistics from 2003 through 2009 show the high mark was 2003, when 133 SOFA personnel were arrested in connection with 112 cases. The number of cases that resulted in indictments and guilty verdicts in court, however, was not part of the report.
Japan has a 99 percent conviction rate of all cases brought to trial, but prosecutors are careful not to present indictments in cases they do not believe they can win, seeking indictments in about 64 percent of the cases.
In 2009, local police arrested 50 SOFA personnel in connection with 50 cases. That’s down from 63 arrests in connection with 70 cases the previous year, according to the statistics.
The number of arrests in connection to cases listed as “heinous” — which include murder, arson, robbery and rape — also was down, from 13 in 2008 to four in 2009.
Those cases included the Nov. 7 fatal hit-and-run that resulted in a charge of vehicular manslaughter against an Army staff sergeant (ongoing in Naha Circuit Court); a robbery of a cab driver in August for which two Marines were arrested but only one was indicted (case pending in court); and the attempted robbery of a pharmacy in April that later resulted in charges being reduced to trespassing and extortion and a guilty verdict.
Arrests were up in two categories. Okinawa police arrested 15 people for violent crimes last year, nine more than 2008. Arrests for thefts were also up, from 15 in 2008 to 17 last year.
Police did not have comparable numbers for how many of those arrests led to indictments and 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 lower 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, and local laws. The seminar was expanded in 2008 from four hours to eight hours.