Editorial for September 9: Who should police the police?

The current government appears poised to propose amendments to the Police Law that would create a Police Public Complaints Commission, in effect, a civilian panel that would investigate charges of police misconduct or misbehavior.

The idea has appeal in that it removes the uncomfortable notion that a law enforcement body is capable of investigating itself.

Even Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Commissioner David Baines says he would support an independent civilian body to examine complaints against law enforcement officials. He emphasizes that public perception and increased transparency are compelling arguments in favor of forming such a commission.

However, the establishment of such an independent body is more nuanced than it might appear.

First, given Cayman’s current fiscal condition, is cost versus benefit. To set up and staff such a commission properly would require an estimated expenditure of between $1 million and $1.5 million.

This cost could perhaps be abated if the duties of the panel were divided between volunteers, who would hear the original complaints, and a professional, highly skilled investigative team that would look into what were determined to be serious or even criminal offenses.

Lesser complaints (“the officer called me a name,” for example) could be dispatched quickly at the volunteer level.

Another challenge would be to define the statutory powers of the public commission. Would it, for example, have authority to issue subpoenas or apply for search warrants, presumably through either a magistrate or a justice of the peace?

Additionally, separation of powers principles must apply. We would oppose any institution, for example, that had “judge, jury, and executioner” powers unto itself. At some point, the findings of the independent panel, if indicating a criminal offense may have been committed, would have to find their way to the director of public prosecutions to determine whether the matter should proceed in the judicial system.

Although perhaps not determinative, one cannot escape the inference that this body is necessary, in part, because some have a lack of trust or faith in police officials to sort out these matters among themselves.

Frankly, without further research on our own part, we are not comfortable that we know enough to support, or oppose, the government’s proposal. For example, is this a major issue, a minor issue or largely a politically correct or popular issue?

On balance, our predisposition is to trust and support our police and, lest there be any doubt, to trust and support our police commissioner. We appreciate, however, that the RCIPS itself might benefit from having removed from its own responsibilities the uncomfortable task of investigating its own.

Many, if not most, large law enforcement bodies have internal affairs divisions that investigate alleged wrongdoing within their departments. No less a household name in Cayman than Martin Bridger, senior investigating officer of Operation Tempura, spent a good part of his career doing exactly that.

The proper path, it seems to us, is to determine the size and scope of the problem, and then make a determination in the context of the territory’s other calls on its resources, whether moving forward with another costly commission makes sense.