Police service ‘critically understaffed’

Short staff, low pay, and lack of training continue to dog the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service. But top commanders say the force has done a fine job lowering crime so far in 2011; and they continue to believe the organisation has great potential.  

On one thing, the Royal Cayman Islands Police service officers’ association and top police managers agree: RCIPS needs more officers on patrol.  

The extent to which those staffing needs exist is a matter of some dispute. But RCIPS Chief Superintendent John Jones doesn’t mince words when it comes to counting cops.  

“Police staffing at the moment…we are still I would say, very short on constables,” Superintendent Jones said, adding that RCIPS is budgeted for 259 constables and senior constables, but are “light” about 27. “We are in desperate need of getting up to our full establishment of constables. In terms of the other ranks, we’re fully staffed.”  

Constables, senior constables and sergeants are generally the ranks that make the initial calls for service and are the “face” of the local police service in dealing with the public from day-to-day.  

Police association board member Sergeant Betty Ebanks puts her estimate much higher. “We’re definitely understaffed by at least 60 officers and that’s front-line officers,” she said.  

Association Chairman Inspector Rudolph Gordon won’t put a number on it. “We are critically understaffed,” he said.  

Efforts to bolster the ranks of RCIPS detective units and armed officers have been effective, largely through hiring of veteran officers from other police forces.  

Attempts last year to bring in some local police patrol officers were described by Superintendent Jones as “sort of like a death march”.  

“We started off with 500 candidates and ended up with nine graduating,” he said.  

Inspector Gordon said RCIPS officers have been hearing a lot over the past couple of years about a lack of government funds and the inability of managers to find local people who want to be police officers.  

“One of the things that is said is that because government is cutting the budget…management indicates that finance is one of the major factors in bringing us up to the strength,” he said. “The truth is, budgets are being cut all over the world. I would think its how you apply the money you receive. For example, you will hear ‘well, we don’t have the money to get the various officers that you need’. But then money is being used to do various less critical things.”  

For example, Mr. Gordon said RCIPS is funding three deputy commissioner positions, including pay for one deputy commissioner who has been on suspension from the force for more than three years.  

“For an organisation our size, I think we’re a little bit top-heavy at senior level,” he said.  

Another area in which additional funds are spent is in bringing veteran police officers to Cayman to fill specialist positions, for which local officers are rarely trained, Mr. Gordon said.  

“We generally want to seem to bring in officers [from outside the country],” he said. “That is a costly venture. Some stay here anywhere between three and four years; when they leave, you have to do that all over again. We feel if more effort was made in terms of establishing our main base with local officers…then it would be more cost effective and beneficial in the long term.”  

One area of the service that has suffered in the past few years is community policing, according to Superintendent Jones. As more officers have left the service and not been replaced, community “beat” officers had to be removed to other duties. The RCIPS community police force has never quite gotten back to what it was in the 2006/07 era.  

“[Community policing] was very popular and won a lot of praise,” he said. “In 2008 and 2009 they sort of gradually dwindled.”  

It was also around that time that Cayman’s crime statistics began to note a sizeable increase in the number of major violent incidents, like murders and robberies.  

 

Shift change 

To help use what it does have more effectively, the RCIPS implemented a major shift change in August 2010. Gone are the days of working 12 hours per shift, four days on and four days off.  

“When I first arrived here [in 2006] there were a lot of police officers who made a bee-line for me and said ‘please, do something about these 12-hour shifts,” Mr. Jones said.  

The old 12-hour shifts have been replaced with an extremely complex and varied work schedule that the police officers’ association believes has helped cover the patrol areas better.  

“What the organisation is trying to achieve by the overlapping hours is to put sufficient officers on the street during peak hours to target the criminal element,” Sergeant Ebanks said. “[Typical] hours are 7am to 4pm, 2pm to 3am, 10pm to 7am.”  

The idea, according to Superintendent Jones, is maintain staffing levels at a constant; so there are just as many officers available to respond to calls at 5am as there are at 10pm or 11pm. The hours also allow RCIPS to put more officers on the street during what it has determined as “peak times” for police calls.  

What the new shift doesn’t do is help with officers’ personal lives.  

“The way the shifts are structured now isn’t very kind to the officers, for lack of a better word,” Mr. Gordon said. “You really don’t know when you’re going in and you don’t have any consistency. Sometimes you have nine hours, sometimes you have 10 hours and sometimes 11 hours. We’re currently working with management in reviewing that with the hope that we can have a better structured shift system.”  

Mr. Jones said he’s never known of a police working shift that’s been able to satisfy the needs of the community and the personal needs of officers all at the same time. “That’s like trying to find the Holy Grail,” he jokes.  

“What we aim to do is try and get a compromise, but clearly having a rigid shift pattern of 12 hours served nobody’s purpose really,” he said.  

 

Lower crime 

Since the beginning of 2011, there has been a significant drop in overall crime and most noticeably, serious crime with the exception of robberies.  

But Mr. Gordon said police officers are paying for it, working longer in some cases to cover shifts and getting called in on days off when something serious happens. At the same time, he said it does not appear that the general public has noticed anything getting better with regard to crime.  

“The figures are what they are and we are proud of the hard work of our officers in achieving that,” Mr. Gordon said. “The truth is crime is, in a sense, perception and we are working hard in achieving a positive one. 

“One sticky one for us right now is the robberies,” he said. “Burglaries happen when you’re not there, yes, you feel violated when you get back there but at least you don’t have somebody sticking a gun in your face. 

“People are still saying they feel unsafe, especially with the constant robberies.”  

“There’s no doubt the situation with the robberies has gone up alarmingly and that causes the most concern because its really violent, scary and its away from the norm that most people are used to here,” Superintendent Jones said. “And there [are] people out there saying that crime stats are being repressed, or people saying they won’t bother reporting because ‘what’s the point’? You’re always going to get that element.”  

But Mr. Jones said the police can only talk about the crimes that are reported, and figures show those are headed down.  

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is focusing on persistent offenders,” he said. “Identify those key offenders who are causing the most harm. It’s amazing how you can see the figures…if one particular offender is released, the shock effect that can have statistically because they go out and revert to their previous behaviour.  

“It is a bit of a revolving door, unfortunately.”  

 

Revolving doors 

Since 2008, dozens of RCIPS officers have left the force – mainly those from Cayman or the United Kingdom – and they have never truly been replaced.  

From Inspector Gordon’s perspective, some of that was due to the two-year long corruption investigation that became known as Operation Tempura. But Mr. Gordon believes a lot of it is a perceived lack of opportunity for advancement within the organisation.  

“Successive commissioners have come to us and said, ‘listen, we don’t have the skill set to address the crime issue’,” Mr. Gordon said. “And they bring in the people with the skill set. 

“But what we haven’t seen any commissioner do, is to approach the government with a comprehensive training development plan and say….’this is what we’re going to do in bringing the local officers up to that required skill level’.  

“The excuse generally is the organisation lacks the funding for the training,” Mr. Gordon continued. ”We’re talking about a long term plan that will produce the overall skill set that the organisation requires to operate effectively. Recently the organisation has been addressing some shortfall in basic refresher courses in different areas and to accommodate new legislation.” 

Mr. Jones agrees that there does seem to be a perception among local police officers that specialist positions, such as detectives, the firearms unit, joint intelligence and the like, are only for expatriate officers with specialist training.  

”I’d be very keen to promote an avenue for local officers, officers that show promise as detectives,” he said. “The key thing we need to do for local officers is to make it clear that not all the specialist roles are there for foreign officers. We need to get the right mix.”  

Another area that Mr. Jones worries about is the general pay scales of police officers.  

“It does worry me that…in the financial climate, our officers are finding it increasingly difficult to manage to subsist,” he said. “I don’t think they’re paid sufficiently…the cops on the ground. They don’t get yearly increments. In real terms they’ve probably taken a pay cut. Quite frankly, who wants to work shifts and take all the hassle that you take as a cop if you’re going to get paid peanuts? 

“When people look at the ingredients of corruption usually one of the components that you’ll find is people aren’t paid that much,” he said.  

 

The ‘C word’  

Superintendent Jones may have a unique perspective in all the local police service on corruption-related issues. He was the only member of RCIPS to be removed during the Operation Tempura investigation who was able to return to the department, having been cleared of any alleged wrong-doing.  

He doesn’t believe corruption exists within the RCIPS to the level some would have the public believe.  

“I’ve been to other islands, not a great distance from here…where I’ve spoken to people who say ‘you want to get a driving licence, you go pay somebody at the licensing department; you want to get your car registered, there’s a backhander for that’,” Mr. Jones said. “That kind of thing, I have not heard that here.”  

Yet in the latter part of 2010, after the Operation Tempura probe ended, dozens of police officers and some RCIPS civilian employees were subjected to polygraph tests.  

The police service has never indicated why this occurred.  

“It is still hanging over our heads,” Mr. Gordon said. “A lot of officers feel that there is this thing overshadowing them: uncertainty.”  

The Caymanian Compass first reported in September 2010 that dozens of RCIPS officers had been required to take polygraphs – also known as lie detector tests – as part of a “vetting process” by their employers.  

“We haven’t had anything in terms of how many passed and how many failed [the polygraphs], but what comes back to us is the majority of officers failed,” Mr. Gordon said. “The majority of officers failed, and they’re not sure what their position is. One particular officer….for two and a half hours, he was forced by the polygrapher to admit he committed a serious crime.”  

The Royal Cayman Islands Police officers association confirmed earlier this year that some of its members met with Police Commissioner David Baines over officers being polygraph tested. Mr. Gordon said those meetings were generally one-on-one discussions between that officer and the commissioner. In September, the Caymanian Compass reported that some 40 officers were given the tests, but Mr. Gordon said it was believed that more people had taken the exam, including some civilian employees.  

“It is not RCIPS policy to comment on our vetting procedures,” read a statement from the commissioner’s spokesperson that was issued in response to questions from the Compass last year. 

A few officers have stated that they were unable obtain the results of polygraph tests they have taken.  

Sergeant Ebanks said she wasn’t aware of any cases that involved police officers or other RCIPS employees being forced to leave the service because of their polygraph test results. However, she said the RCIPS command staff had not communicated with the association regarding the testing of specific individuals.  

“Because the polygraph happened, the way it happened, and the results from what we gather happened, the officers….they still feel that things that may happen to them in the organisation, the commissioner or his designates may be treating them differently because of that,” Mrs. Ebanks said. “That is the perception.  

“We were told as an association that by ‘X’ time [the police commissioner] would be speaking to all of them [referring to the officers who were polygraph tested],” Mrs. Ebanks said. “We weren’t told who they were. Yet those same officers had to open up and come to us.” 

“We have no closure,” Inspector Gordon said. “Whatever the results are, whatever you’re going to be doing in relation to the result of it should be done, but you can’t just have it hanging over the officer’s heads.” 

“The person who can answer that question…is the commissioner,” Mr. Jones said. 

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