The tragic story of five boaters, including two young children, who went missing at sea in the early part of 2016 contributed to a public backlash against the police that prompted the early departure of Police Commissioner David Baines.
The fallout from the incident was still being felt at the end of the year, with a U.K. Coastguard team on island to review the country’s search and rescue capability.
Gary Mullings, his nephews Nicholas Watler, Kamron Brown, 11, and Kanyi Brown, 9, and his friend Edsell Haylock were reported missing on Sunday, March 6, after they did not return from a fishing trip to 12 Mile Bank.
Their upturned vessel was located 20 miles offshore the following day, but none of its occupants was ever found, despite an extensive search involving a U.S. Coast Guard plane, marine police and air unit, supported by a local helicopter pilot and fishing boats.
Amid emotional scenes outside George Town Police Station the morning after the boat was reported missing, family and friends of the missing five vented their anger at police officers, whom they accused of being too slow to begin searching for their loved ones.
Imron Brown, the father of the two missing boys, told the Cayman Compass, “The government has a helicopter, all kinds of speedboats and there are two small babies on board – an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old – my babies. What is so complicated to go out and try to find them?”
The police decision not to send the helicopter or marine police boat overnight and to wait until 8:30 a.m. the next day to begin the search and rescue mission came under intense scrutiny in the days that followed.
Police said it was unsafe to send a helicopter out across such a wide search area in dark and wet conditions on a moonless night. Their response was eventually vindicated by a U.K. Coastguard commander commissioned to investigate.
His review, published in June, found “no major faults” with the police-led search and rescue effort, given air crew limitations, poor weather and the lack of a defined search area.
The report came too late for Police Commissioner Baines, who had stepped down amid the furor around the incident.
Critics of the police chief, including opposition legislators led by backbencher Bernie Bush, had seized on the incident as another example of what they described as mismanagement of the police force. Complaints leveled at the organization also included the theft of a large quantity of drugs from the police evidence locker and the hiring of a Jamaican armed officer who was later convicted of murder.
Governor Helen Kilpatrick announced Mr. Baines’s departure in March, though she said there was no validity to the criticism.
“The recent barrage of unfair criticism and defamatory comments has undermined the commissioner’s authority to the extent that his leadership of the RCIPS is no longer tenable,” Governor Kilpatrick’s statement read.
In an interview with the Compass as he prepared to leave the island in May, Mr. Baines said he was the victim of a baseless, politically motivated smear campaign.
“It was all an attempt to undermine, smear and create an unfortunate situation that meant I couldn’t do my job as commissioner,” he said.