The photos of the Bodden Town crime scene, which involved two Jamaican nationals in what police are calling an “apparent” murder-suicide, are gruesome and distasteful. If, as is alleged, the firefighters did in fact take the photos and distribute them online, their actions were crass, disrespectful and unprofessional.
However, they were not, as far as we can tell, criminal.
It is entirely appropriate for the Cayman Islands Fire Service to investigate the matter internally and consider appropriate disciplinary measures.
What is not appropriate is for the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service to move toward curtailing free speech or for the Director of Public Prosecutions, and consequently the courts, to decide what are proper public utterances. As the U.S. Supreme Court has learned in pornography cases, this is a winding and inexact path to go down with quicksand waiting around every bend.
We stipulate that circulation of the crime scene photos was despicable. But if free speech protections applied only to tasteful bromides and reverential platitudes, no such protections would be needed. The core function of free speech protections is to safeguard the objectionable — expressions that many find controversial, provocative or even utterly distasteful.
The intersection of firefighters, photos and iPhones is not a novel issue particular to Cayman. For example, the Washington, D.C., fire department recently rolled out a new social media policy outlining what employees can and cannot do while on the job, essentially banning them from taking photos or video of fire or accident scenes, or circulating such images, while on the clock.
In 2005, a New Jersey police officer sent a crime scene photo, involving a murder-suicide, to a civilian woman via a cell phone. The woman’s brother saw the photo and distributed it to other people in the community. The police officer received a 30-day suspension.
If the issue at hand here in Cayman is police not being able to maintain control of their crime scenes, then the police should exercise better control over who — and whose cameras — they allow in restricted areas.
Again, the proper venue for addressing this current situation is within the Fire Service, not in the office of the police commissioner or the Director of Public Prosecutions.
As long as the response to the alleged misconduct is restrained to the departmental level, the ramifications are confined to the individuals involved. Once it spreads to the criminal justice system, however, it affects all of us. (Imagine the possible implications for professional photojournalists or smart phone–toting bystanders.)
If the firefighters violated departmental policy, they should be disciplined accordingly.
However unhappy the police might be at the leaking of grisly photos, it simply does not rise to the level of a criminal offense unless police can demonstrate that it impeded its investigation or harmed the prosecution. There are already clear laws about that, so no legislating from the bench is required.
The police are not in charge of the Fire Service. They also are not in charge of telling people what they can or cannot publish — in print or online. They’re definitely not in charge of free speech in a free society.