By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco business and community leaders yesterday said they were "dumbfounded" that The Bahamas' top police officer would refute a crime "epidemic" that threatens to destroy post-Dorian recovery.
Roscoe Thompson, the Marsh Harbour/Spring City Council’s head, and Ken Hutton, the island's Chamber of Commerce president, both told Tribune Business that the 39 percent year-over-year crime decline cited by Paul Rolle, the police commissioner, merely reflected that many Abaconians had given up reporting such incidents.
Describing thefts from homes and businesses as "rampant", they said 10-12 such crimes had occurred in the Marsh Harbour and central Abaco area alone over the past week. Mr Thompson, in particular, gave this newspaper a list of homeowners and businesses that had fallen victim to this.
The duo, speaking in separate interviews, warned that the lack of security threatened to derail the island's ongoing efforts to rebuild from the devastation inflicted more than 12 months ago by Hurricane Dorian.
They added that daily-occurring thefts, and the associated costs they impose, will deter business owners and second homeowners - the "lifeline" of the island's economy pre-Dorian - from returning to rebuild their homes and enterprises, thereby depriving Abaco of much-needed growth and job creation.
"I think it's pretty clear the people have lost a good deal of faith in law enforcement to do their job because there are not enough of them. As a result, they're not reporting crime. It's not that crime is down; it's that people have lost faith in the system," Mr Hutton told this newspaper.
"It's rampant. Theft is rampant here. It's absolutely an epidemic. You have to literally tie everything down in the night and hope it is there in the morning. My businesses are still getting broken into on a regular basis.
"I think what you're going to find is people are not going to move to somewhere where they don't feel secure. Security is the number one thing. If people don't feel secure, it's not just the locals, there's the driving force of the Abaco economy; the second homeowners," he added.
"They're not going to come back unless they feel secure and, if they invest to rebuild, they won't want their materials stolen from the job site. It's a very serious issue here, and is not getting any better. The private sector is not going to return until they feel they can do so securely, and feel the investment in their assets is not going to be stolen from them overnight."
Mr Hutton's position was echoed by Mr Thompson, who told Tribune Business he was "dumbfounded" and "very shocked" that then police commissioner would describe the island's present crime woes as "fake" since it suggested law enforcement's top officers were out of touch with what was happening on the ground.
Suggesting that many Abaconians had been unable to contact the police to report thefts and other incidents, the Marsh Harbour/Spring City Council chief said he was presented with four new contact numbers to pass on to the community after finally securing a meeting with Chief Superintendent Smith on Monday.
Revealing that the officer admitted the police are undermanned on Abaco, and lack the necessary vehicles, Mr Thompson said enforcement of the COVID-19 emergency orders is also lacking. He cited the operation of several bars, and an incident in one where an off-duty Royal Bahamas Defence Force officer allegedly brandished a firearm.
Noting that these bars remained open despite being reported to authorities, he said he personally knew of 10-12 thefts that had occurred in the Marsh Harbour/Central Abaco area over the past week.
"I'll be honest with you. I'm very disappointed in the Government thinking nothing is going on in Abaco, and when you speak to the people something is happening every day or other day," Mr Thompson said.
"It isn't like we're asking for much. All we're asking for is more of a police presence in the Central Abaco area, with some roadblocks at night. People are breaking the curfew at night. Their [the police's] response is they have no place to hold people arrested. I'm very disappointed.
"It's going to hurt the growth of Marsh Harbour and Abaco coming back. If they can't control the crime people are not going to want to come back." Naming several incidents and victims, Mr Thompson continued: "Ms Reckley, her husband had a stroke eight months ago. We donated stuff for her to rebuild her home, ourselves and a non-profit group, and they stole the materials donated.
"That's $2,000-$3,000 worth of materials. That's not petty. I can do down the list. Abaco Gold was a jewellery store and clothing boutique. Mr Pinder had just put in a new window and there was nothing in there, yet they booted it out.
"Kevin Sawyer at Island Boy Tackle and Marine, they stole the lower unit off one of his engines, and broke in and stole stuff out of the shop. Auto Marine Professionals, my brother-in-law, between Friday and Saturday they broke in," he continued.
"In Dundas Town they broke into a home and stole supplies and a generator. Krista Albury, the Chamber of Commerce director, her place was burglarised three times. People are getting discouraged because there's no control on the crime. People wanting to come back, they're seeing there's no police here, there's no law and order here right now.
"It's heart-wrenching. It's hurting us. Me publicising it doesn't help us, but I don't know any way of getting the Government's attention. The petty crimes have been non-stop for the past two weeks. Something is happening every day. If not in Treasure Cay, it's in Hope Town, and if not in Marsh Harbour, it's in Dundas Town or Murphy Town."
As for the economic fall-out and impact on Abaco's recovery, Mr Thompson added: "Why would people come back and invest $50,000-$70,000 in a business in Abaco if crime is not brought under control? I wouldn't do it. If I was in Nassau thinking of a business in Abaco, I would think twice about it.
"It's discouraging. That's a word I can say over and over. It's discouraging to the homeowners who are trying to invest money back, but if things get stolen they will think twice about rebuilding and that's going to hurt us in the long run.
"In all honesty I don't know where we're going to go. If we don't do something about it, it's going to be devastating to our economy and island, not just in Marsh Harbour but Dundas Town and the surrounding cays and other settlements. It will be devastating to this area because our economy relies on a trickle down effect."
Mr Hutton said crime on Abaco had become "more prevalent" since Dorian as more persons returned to the island. He described police complaints over a lack of accommodation as "an excuse", adding that a location should not be allowed to become "lawless" because of it.
"We've been hit by everything except an alien invasion in the last 12 months," the Chamber president added, "but I have to say it's going to be a very serious negative impact if not dealt with."