Police chief counters doubts over witness protection

Amid some skepticism from a large and vocal crowd at a West Bay community police meeting Thursday, Commissioner David Baines insisted his officers would keep witnesses safe if they gave evidence following recent murders in the district.

The commissioner repeated his plea to the public to come forward with information, saying police were doing everything they could to “keep the lid on” a volatile situation.

Several West Bay residents, including a former prosecutor, spoke out at the meeting about fears of police corruption and failure to respect witness anonymity.

Former Crown counsel Julene Banks, one of several residents to make speeches at the meeting, said she believed people did not trust police to keep their identity secret, claiming corruption is “rampant” in the force.

“Yes, we have witness protection, but it doesn’t work,” she told a crowd of around 60 people, including Premier Alden McLaughlin and several members of Cabinet.

She added that there was no privacy at the police station and claimed that as soon as anyone gave a statement, it filtered back through the “marl road” grapevine immediately.

Mr. Baines said the police could use and had used witness protection successfully to get convictions, citing the recent life sentences for two thugs, whom he described as the leaders of the Birch Tree Hill Gang, as evidence that the system worked.

Another resident expressed similar issues in an effort to explain why people don’t talk to police.

“We have our families too, and we are fearful for our lives. I don’t see how they can say, ‘Come forward, we will protect you.’ There is no way that is going to happen. It is hard for me to say this,” she said.

Other residents insisted police need to be out on more regular foot patrols in known trouble spots and urged the community, particularly churches, to do more to resolve the social issues fueling crime in West Bay.

Speaking to the Cayman Compass after the meeting, the commissioner acknowledged, “The issue of holding confidences and police releasing details has been a constant concern mentioned since I arrived. I said then and I repeat, any officer or police staff breaching this will be disciplined, or where evidence of criminal conduct is evident, prosecuted,” he said.

He acknowledged the police station is outdated, with open public areas and limited privacy, suggesting this enabled some reported issues to be “discussed and rumored” by others within earshot who weren’t necessarily police officers.

Despite these concerns, he insisted the witness protection program is working.

He told residents at the meeting, “I understand the threat and the fear that people have that it is difficult.

“In some cases, witness protection means your life can change forever by being moved off this island in order to do the right thing. We do that, we have people all over the world. For obvious reasons, we don’t advertise that fact.”

Mr. Baines also gave new details of the circumstances surrounding the murder of David Ebanks last week, claiming it took members of the public 25 minutes to call 911 following the fatal shooting close to Kelly’s Bar.

One woman alleged that a member of the public had tried to flag down a police car in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, claiming the officer drove on without stopping.

Mr. Baines said he was unaware of this but would investigate. He also countered suspicion from the community about CCTV cameras, insisting they are working and had captured valuable footage in relation to all three recent shootings in the district.

Several residents gave presentations suggesting more needs to be done to support young people and revive the family unit, and suggesting the churches should go out into the community and assist.

Mr. Baines said the focus of the police is on arresting and charging those who had gone “beyond the pale” and committed to a life of crime.

“We know who the triggermen are. We are working day in, day out, to arrest those people and get them charged.

“These people have gone beyond the pale. They are not going to listen to the police, the churches or anybody else,” he said.

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