Cayman Islands Acting Police Commissioner James Smith got an earful from West Bay residents Tuesday night at the first of a series of community meetings held by the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.
Residents were concerned about a number of issues, including low police staffing levels; crime in the Barkers area; a perceived lack of Caymanian officers in the force; and several unsolved murders in the district.
Following the 10 October abduction and slaying of Cable and Wireless executive Estella Scott-Roberts, whose remains were found in a burned out SUV along a dyke road in the Barkers area, West Bay residents called for increased police patrols and asked police to close off the national park area to vehicle traffic between dusk and dawn.
West Bay police station commander Angelique Howell said her officers were routinely patrolling the area, but said maintaining a continual cordon was not possible under current Cayman Islands Police Law.
Mr. Smith said that was confirmed following discussions with the attorney general’s office.
‘It would need an exceptional circumstance to impose that kind of measure, and it would be in the aftermath of a fairly serious series of events,’ Mr. Smith said, adding he did not want to downplay the serious nature of Mrs. Scott-Roberts’ killing.
‘It’s much more appropriate that the Minister of Tourism exercises his authority to put a gate up and close it off,’ Mr. Smith said.
Members of the West Bay Action Committee were not satisfied with that answer.
‘There is an immediate need to close off access to Barkers from 7pm to 7am daily,’ the group wrote in a letter to the acting commissioner on 9 February. ‘Also, a surveillance camera should have a live feed to the police station 24/7.’
Other West Bayers at Tuesday’s meeting said they did not want Barkers shut down to vehicle traffic at night.
‘No one’s going to close that road off to me,’ one man shouted from the crowd of 50 or so who attended the gathering at John Cumber Primary School Hall.
Residents were generally concerned about RCIPS staffing, particularly in West Bay, where complaints about the availability of police officers have been heard during the last few meetings between police and the public.
Acting Commissioner Smith said the police service was down about 30 officers compared to the number RCIPS had last year. He also noted that the service had not hosted a recruiting class in some time, but that officials were looking at holding one before the end of this budget year in June.
Mr. Smith acknowledged money is tight. RCIPS, along with every other department in the civil service, has been forced to cut budgets by at least six per cent this year. Further cut backs may be necessary in the fiscal year that begins on 1 July.
Local resident Hanklin Ebanks asked why the police service didn’t hire more Caymanian officers to make up the staffing gap.
‘We certainly hire anybody who comes in and meets all of the requirements…regardless of where they come from,’ Mr. Smith said. ‘My view is that we hire the best that’s available.’
‘Are we saying that there’s (sic) only expatriates available?’ Mr. Ebanks said.
‘I said nothing like that,’ Mr. Smith said. ‘Of course, I respect that we need to get as many Caymanians into this job as we can, but it needs to be a job they want to come to.’
Another resident, Rupert Ackermon, said he believed local Caymanian officers were treated badly by police from other jurisdictions.
‘There has to be somebody who vets these people coming in,’ Mr. Ackermon said. ‘People from other jurisdictions give (Caymanians) a hard time…they treat them like dirt. So how are we going to recruit Caymanians?’
Mr. Smith said nothing like what Mr. Ackermon claimed has been reported back to him.
‘I can’t believe that any of them (referring to the RCIPS command staff) would tolerate that kind of behaviour,’ Mr. Smith said. ‘We’ve got the deputy commissioner here who is 25, 26 years now in the job, and he knows it like the back of his hand.’
‘Is he Caymanian?’ Mr. Ackermon asked.
‘I’ve no idea. Why should I have any idea?’ Mr. Smith said in response. ‘This is an island of; I heard yesterday, 120 nationalities. With over 50 per cent of the islands populated by non-Caymanians, why would there only be Caymanians in the police service?’
The most recent Caymanian Compass review of RCIPS staffing showed more than 60 per cent of police officers in the service were Caymanian.
Commander Howell also expressed concern at the meeting that efforts to form a neighbourhood watch group in West Bay had failed in the past year. Mrs. Howell said some residents were concerned about retaliation if they reported crime to police, while others worried forming a neighbourhood watch would drive down property values in the neighbourhood.
She promised to redouble efforts to put together a neighbourhood watch programme.