Doing business with crime

Armed robberies of Cayman Islands businesses hit an all-time high in 2010, even as some other types of serious crime began to decline. The Caymanian Compass spoke with a few local companies that seem to be the favourite targets of robbers and other businesses for which the well-publicised ‘rise in crime’ might not be such a bad thing.

The numbers speak for themselves: 64 robberies in 2010, and an average of three to four robberies per week in the first two and a half months of this year. The large majority of those incidents involved armed suspects striking open businesses or snatching business earnings from unwary transporters.

Local store owners like Prentice Panton of the Reflections chain are long used to dealing with break-ins, thefts and shoplifting. But this more violent type of crime is something new to him.

“The shoplifting and all that, I don’t worry about that too much,” Mr. Panton said. “But when we start getting shot at, and I gotta think that a staff member gets shot for six dollars an hour…and then on top of it, we know who these guys are…I mean, we’re not going to shut down, but if I could find a purchaser, sure, there’s other things I could do that are more rewarding – and not as high risk.”

Robert Hamaty, the Jamaican-born owner of Tortuga Rum Company, sighs as he sits down at his mahogany conference table.

“I bought this mahogany table and bar a long time ago when things were better,” Mr. Hamaty said of his meeting room at this office in central George Town. “It’s changing, man, this place is changing.”

Mr. Panton’s store had three armed robberies, at least three break-ins and numerous thefts in 2010. Mr. Hamaty’s Tortuga stores have recorded at least three armed robberies within the past year, as well as one robbery of business takings during transport.

In most of the store robberies, the suspects got away with relatively small amounts of money – the highest was likely the $2,000 taken from the West Bay Tortuga location during an armed hold-up earlier this year. It was the first time the store had been robbed since it opened in 1992.

Frustration

In Mr. Panton’s case at least, there is considerable frustration with the response of local police to last year’s incidents at his Reflections food and liquor stores.

The Food-4-Less store at the airport location in George Town was robbed first by a man who fired a flare gun inside the store and then ran off. That incident was followed by two late-night heists at the Godfrey Nixon Way store, the second of which involved a weapon being fired through the glass door entrance.

The police response in the last case was less than ideal, Mr. Panton said. “They were of the opinion that shots were not fired,” he said. “After I was allowed entry into the building, I found that there [were], in fact, shots fired. I actually helped them find the bullets. The bullets were actually left on the scene.”

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service launched an internal investigation after the incident was reported in the local press. No results of that investigation have ever been made public.

Mr. Panton said other evidence from that robbery has since been provided, but he has never been made aware of any arrests or charges filed in the case.

“There was a tote bag left behind with hair inside of it, they weren’t wearing gloves so they left their fingerprints,” he said. [There was] audio, video and now we also have an eyewitness…they provided names and addresses of the three of the four persons involved.”

It is the Reflections store policy to report every crime that occurs to police, and this has resulted in a number of shoplifting and theft reports. Mostly, Mr. Panton said the suspects in those cases are taking cigarettes.

“Shoplifting has increased significantly,” he said. “They’re stealing for cigarettes. Most of the burglaries into business premises are for cigarettes. The hijacking of that delivery bus [in late February in West Bay], I’m surprised it took so long for something like that to happen.”

But Mr. Panton said reports of shoplifting and theft don’t usually get much attention.

”I would say for the most part, police aren’t very interested in doing much about it,” he said.

In fairness to the police, the Reflections owner said he’s not sure he’d do much about it either if he was a police officer.

“They don’t want to arrest them and go sit in court and wait and wait and wait. They go to court and they say, ‘oh sorry, we don’t have your file, oh sorry, the case has been delayed’ There are known criminals…clear cut evidence and they’re getting put off trials for a year, two years,” Mr. Panton said.

“An officer told me they caught a guy who stole a Rolex and the guy said ‘oh sorry, I got a drug habit’ and they gave him time off [his sentence]. They learn how to scam the system. I had a guy tell me that he committed a robbery just so he could go to jail and fix his knee. He needed knee surgery and it cost $50,000. He said ‘Prentice, they’ve got to treat me’.

“I’ve taken people on work release, for example. The guy had a fridge in his cell, he had a phone, he had a blender, [and] he had a toaster. Prison is no deterrent.”

‘Robin Hood’ complex

For his part, Mr. Hamaty believes the Cayman Islands public can be a bit hard on the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.

He said police that investigated the armed robbery at his West Bay store in March were on top of the suspects within 15-20 minutes after an alert patron took a picture of the suspects’ getaway vehicle.

“Sometimes they get a lot of criticism, but nobody gives them credit when they do react,” he said.

Mr. Hamaty believes the criminals of today may convince themselves that they are ‘Robin Hoods’ of sorts – stealing from the rich. But he said most don’t realise they’re putting themselves at incredible risk to obtain very little reward.

“There are cameras, there are security measures,” Mr. Hamaty said. “Why would you want to rob a tourist area? You’re not going to get much cash. Tourists usually use credit cards.”

Many businesses have started installing “drop safes” where they put the larger amount of cash takings, leaving only a few hundred dollars in the register. Mr. Hamaty said the West Bay Tortuga store register take was actually unusual because it handled mainly cash sales from patties and sodas.

“Why are you taking that big risk, when there’s not that much value?” he said. “The business people have become more vigilant.”

Mr. Hamaty said some of his local liquor stores – not those in the high-profile tourist areas – may consider adding a door-locking feature that requires staff to ‘buzz’ customers in only after their pictures have been captured on surveillance video.

“If you’re wearing a mask, they’re not going to let you in,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it in some of my tourism locations because it would be anti-business, but in the local stores I could do it.”

Security Centre President Stuart Bostock said many business owners, even the smaller mom-and-pop convenience stores are doing what Mr. Hamaty has done.

“I’m talking [about] the little corner shops,” Mr. Bostock said. “Most of the owners, when they’re in the states they go to the Home Depot, pick up a little four camera system and put it in themselves.”

The larger businesses are expanding camera surveillance networks, installing cameras that are outward-looking into the parking lot or even the street.

“So, you’re seeing what vehicle the person came from what direction they went when they left,” he said. “Generally, people don’t walk around with masks on their head, so they do stop somewhere prior to putting the mask on.”

‘Easy target’

Not everyone in the business world is suffering from Cayman’s crime problems.

“The security industry has grown globally over the last 10 years,” Mr. Bostock said. “Locally, it’s grown over the last six years. We’ve seen increases in sales, number of companies and types of businesses.”

The ‘security craze’ in Cayman began after 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, when most businesses were able to repair and upgrade security systems. Back then it was mainly new or rebuilt commercial facilities adding cameras or security guards.

With the recent downturn in the local construction industry, commercial security business has fallen off. But it has been replaced by more demand for a physical security presence, panic alarms and additional camera security. Mr. Bostock estimates that nearly three-quarters of Grand Cayman’s business establishments now have some kind of surveillance cameras inside them.

“The security industry was relatively recession-proof,” he said.

The problem for Cayman now, he said, is the general impression that the country is a ‘soft target’ for outside interests that want to come here and make a quick buck.

This has been seen in recent criminal cases where a pair of men from Romania ran an ATM card scam on local banks and businesses before being arrested at Owen Roberts Airport. Another two men – who may have been cruise ship passengers – were caught on tape swiping $40,000 worth of jewellery from a waterfront store. There has been no word on their arrest. Mr. Bostock believes local “opportunity crime” can be controlled to a certain extent. But he said Cayman needs to bring a coordinated effort to what he calls “organised, outside crime”.

“People come here from questionable backgrounds and see that there are easy targets here,” he said. “I think our borders are somewhat porous.

“The country has grown to a size where it needs an individual that’s responsible for coordinating the efforts of law enforcement agencies,” he said, suggesting the possibility of a government creating a position similar to a homeland security director.

“At the moment, all of our law enforcement rests on the commissioner of police,” Mr. Bostock said. “But what responsibility does he really have for the borders? What responsibility does he really have for the prison…or our customs? Who has responsibility for bringing all of these people together?”

“I just think over the years our customs departments and immigration enforcement departments have just been whittled away,” he said. “In the ‘90s the immigration enforcement was upwards of two dozen, maybe 30 people strong; now there’s half a dozen. The Narcotics Enforcement Teams of customs…there was a couple dozen people in there. Now you’re lucky if there’s half a dozen.”

Cayman’s 2009 Constitution created a National Security Council made up of the governor, law enforcement officials, and several elected lawmakers. But that group is mainly an advisory body and is not directly “in charge” of law enforcement operations.

But Mr. Bostock believes local law enforcement is heading in the right direction of late; making arrests and affecting a drop in the overall level of street crimes.

“We can get control of this,” he said “There is a certain level of crime that is here to stay, but we can protect ourselves against that.”

Mr. Hamaty also notes that it’s important for Cayman to keep things in perspective.

“What the Jamaican people would say is that ‘what would kill you here, don’t frighten us’ because they’ve become accustomed to it,” Mr. Hamaty said. “But we don’t want that to happen here either.”

Click here to read our Compass Point Crime feature 

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