Conservation officers will be armed with batons, pepper spray, stab-proof vests and handcuffs and given new powers of arrest under the National Conservation Bill.
The legislation also broadens the power of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s enforcement officers to stop and search vehicles and seize nets, spear guns, illegally taken wildlife and even boats.
The long-awaited bill, tabled with the Legislative Assembly last week, gives officers the power of police constables for the purposes of enforcing environmental regulations.
John Bothwell, senior research officer at the DoE, said the move would provide vital protection for officers who often risk finding themselves on the wrong end of a spear as they tackle poaching in Cayman’s waters.
“We have had incidents where officers have been swiped at by people with hook sticks. We often arrest people with illegal spear guns. It can get dangerous,” he said.
The bill states that officers can carry “arms,” specified as batons, vests, pepper-spray, handcuffs and Tasers, but not firearms. Mr. Bothwell said it was unlikely that Tasers would be used at this stage.
A crucial element of the bill is that it empowers officers to “arrest and detain” anyone suspected of offenses specified in the act, which range from poaching protected species to dumping trash in a protected area.
At the moment, DoE enforcement officers have to call the police and wait for them to arrive before an arrest can be made. The bill also gives them powers, “while in hot pursuit” of a suspect, to search homes or vehicles without a warrant.
Mr. Bothwell said this would increase the chances of catching and successfully prosecuting poachers.
“We can actually stop a vehicle, open the trunk and see there is a cooler full of conch in there and make an arrest.”
He said the additional powers would help officers establish a clear evidential chain that could be used in court.
This would prevent, for example, a poacher disappearing into a house with a cooler full of conch, stashing them in a freezer and claiming when police arrived that they had been caught legally over a period of several days.
It also saves conservation officers the challenge of tracking suspects until police arrive.
Part six of the bill on enforcement and penalties clearly spells out the new powers.
“Conservation officers shall for the purpose of performing their duties under this law, have all the powers and immunities of constables acting generally in the ordinary course of their duty but shall not carry a firearm.”
It adds, “A conservation officer, with the written authority of the director … may in performance of his duties carry such arms as may be specified in the written authority.”
Mr. Bothwell said officers have already undergone training and are ready for their new role.
“Right now, they are trained. We have been able to get the police to let them go through the training so they know how to handle themselves.”
He added that additional training would be needed in the use of Tasers if they were added to the officers armory at a later stage.