Crime in the Virgin Islands appears to be approaching a dangerous tipping point where the rule of law and the institutions that ensure it are at risk of being overwhelmed.
A spate of recent high-profile incidents underscores this worrying trend.
These include the landing of two cocaine-laden planes on Anegada and the escape of the traffickers aboard; a gun scare at the Elmore Stoutt High School; a spree of 11 attempted burglaries in three days; the shooting of a prison officer in a prison van headed to court; and another shooting this week in Fish Bay.
These latest developments did not appear in a vacuum. The territory’s climbing murder rate, reports of corruption within the police force and other agencies, and then-Premier Andrew Fahie’s arrest last year have all damaged the image of peace and stability that the territory once enjoyed.
Although these issues have been building for years, events in recent weeks seem to exhibit a brazen level of lawlessness not commonly seen here before.
The roots of these problems are complex, and they are not entirely of the VI’s own making. The United States and Europe, for example, are the source of most of the demand that underpins the cocaine trade. And US guns, generally illegal to possess here, are being smuggled across the Caribbean by drug traffickers and other criminals.
VI and United Kingdom policymakers have taken various steps to tackle guns and drugs in recent years, instituting minimum prison sentences, recruiting new officers, and improving marine detection capabilities.
Additionally, recent stop-and-search exercises have borne fruit, and community police officers have strengthened law enforcers’ ties with residents.
But we fear these efforts aren’t nearly enough to address the systemic problems facing the VI.
In our view, combatting crime here involves building both capacity and confidence. We were heartened by Governor John Rankin’s promise to deploy more police to the sister islands in light of increased trafficking activity there.
However, given past incidents of illicit planes landing on Anegada, we can’t help but wonder why this step wasn’t taken long ago. Officers should never be put in a position to respond to a potentially dangerous situation if they are outmanned and unequipped.
Because of such issues, more monetary and technical support from the UK is urgently needed. The UK-appointed governor, after all, is ultimately responsible for national security. He and the premier alike must up their sense of urgency in this regard.
Crime is of course a direct threat to the VI’s already-struggling economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism and financial services. In advance of the 2024 budget, the House of Assembly should appoint a select committee to devise a strategic plan to address the issue.
Communication must also improve. Amid the recent crimes, the public has been repeatedly asked to support the police and other agencies with information about wrongdoers. This call is common sense and laudable, but communication must be a two-way street.
Consider the recent gun scare at ESHS: It appears to have been exacerbated by some misleading social media reports, but the real culprit was the delayed release of official information that allowed such reports to take hold. A timely government statement would have done a world of good.
Similar communication issues turned recent shooter drills into near disasters. The exercises — at the BVI Electricity Corporation on Oct. 13 and the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Oct. 16 — were doubtlessly well-intentioned, but they endangered members of the public who believed the drills to be real.
Ultimately, solving the territory’s complex crime problems will not be easy, but VI residents and the institutions that work for them are up to the challenge.
It will take flexibility, forethought and additional resources to get the job done. But too much is at stake to take any other path.