The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has about 10 fewer police officers now than it did a decade ago, according to figures examined by the Cayman Compass.
Police Commissioner Derek Byrne said during an exclusive interview with the Compass this month that the service now has 356 uniformed officers, not including civilian staff members.
In August 2007, then-Commissioner Stuart Kernohan told the Compass the force had 365 officers and likely needed to increase its staff at that time.
Plans to significantly boost police staff are proceeding in the current budget year, and Commissioner Byrne said he has authorization in the spending plan to hire about 40 more officers.
“We haven’t gone to government looking for anything yet,” said the commissioner, who joined RCIPS on Nov. 7, 2016. “At some stage, when we’re talking about specialist [positions], we may have to. But I really don’t want to go to them until I know exactly what we need.”
Mr. Byrne, a 36-year veteran of Irish national police force An Garda Síochána, has spent quite a bit of time “hitting the books” since his arrival, reviewing the present capabilities of the RCIPS. He said he is being deliberate before making any long-term policing strategy decisions, but he has come to a few early views.
“The underpinning principles of a good police service are sound, which is good – you have something to work with,” he said. “Do we need to modernize and move forward … to become a 21st century police service? Yes, we do.
“It’s an unarmed police force, with an armed response capability. It’s a citizen-based approach to policing. Community is at the center of what we do.”
While the numbers show the police are down in staff compared to a decade ago, Mr. Byrne said this does not necessarily reflect the view that there “aren’t enough cops on the beat.”
It is in the specialist areas of financial crime, cybercrime, public relations and community/neighborhood policing where some of the additions are needed, he said.
When it comes to serious, violent crime or fraud-related cases, Mr. Byrne said the RCIPS has been able to celebrate some big wins in the past year. Convictions of financial fraudster Canover Watson, high-profile thieves Michelle Bouchard and Robert Aspinall, and Cayman’s most infamous former university president, Hassan Syed, were noted.
“I was very pleased with the [Hassan] Syed case,” Mr. Byrne said. “That was a complex technical fraud investigation and we got it over the line.”
Meanwhile, a police “critical incident response” to a West Bay hostage situation in recent weeks likely saved the lives of several community members after a deadly shooting in broad daylight outside a bar.
Mr. Byrne said the resolution of that incident was down to community policing, an alert 911 operator and police officer Orlando Mason, whom the suspect knew and to whom he eventually agreed to turn himself in. Without the intervention of Officer Mason, the commissioner said, there might have been more than one homicide victim at the scene.
“[That suspect] asked for a particular officer,” Mr. Byrne said. “It’s an example of how someone in the community will make the link.”
Areas for improvement
If the RCIPS wants to continue to improve its relations with the community, it must beef up its community/neighborhood policing presence.
Currently, six police constables with one supervising sergeant are assigned to community policing duties as their primary responsibility. That involves a number of tasks, but generally these officers are the face of the police service in the neighborhoods who walk the beat, know the residents and keep up with the goings-on.
“I’d say that maybe 10 percent of your total uniform strength should be community policing officers,” Mr. Byrne said. “It can’t be a token gesture.”
Ten percent of the current RCIPS staff would be around 35 officers. The department has about 2 percent of the force assigned to the task now.
“We’d like to be doing more with the schools, the skate park initiative, but when there’s a murder or major crime, it’s all hands on deck,” Mr. Byrne said. “We have good capacity to investigate major crimes because we tend to put all our resources into it. But that doesn’t happen when the burglary victim is out there saying ‘I’m isolated.’”
The commissioner acknowledged that crime victims are too often left uninformed, and that is something officers need to be better trained in.
“If someone comes to us with a complaint, we should be able to deal with it efficiently and we should be able to keep the victim updated on progress to a conclusion, and that’s not happening in all cases,” he said. “I get as much positive feedback as negative feedback. Sometimes we have to focus on the negative rather than the positive. But it’s in the public domain that we haven’t always been victim-focused.”
The need for training goes beyond improving community policing efforts, Mr. Byrne said.
“The standard of our [criminal] files going over to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions can cause concern on some occasions,” Mr. Byrne said. “That may require us to extend our training.”
Right now, trainee police officers who do not have prior experience in the field must participate in a 16-week training course. If that is successfully completed, they are made probationary police officers for two years before becoming full-fledged officers.
Mr. Byrne said he may look at extending the training course to around 22 weeks, but that he does not believe RCIPS officers necessarily need to be university graduates in order to draft a proper criminal complaint.
“[Deficient reports] are not something that should manifest itself in the policing environment,” he said. “We have created additional problems for ourselves by not turning up in court … we can’t blame anyone else on this.”
Other, more specialized skills needed to bring the police service into the modern era also need to be addressed. The RCIPS has no formal unit to receive and investigate cybercrime. Some, but not all, of those matters can be dealt with by the Financial Crime Unit or through the Family Support Unit, the commissioner said.
“As crime becomes more global and more complex, you need more specialism … that’s where I think the growth [in the police force] is going to come from,” he said. “And they may not be all uniformed police officers.”
Statistics for cybercrime are not recorded on RCIPS quarterly crime reports; general crime is not listed in each policing district.
“People are starved of information in regard to their police service. Not my police service, their police service,” the commissioner said.
Traffic enforcement, particularly whether police officers need to hand out citations for every infraction, is another key issue Mr. Byrne has identified.
“The question for me is, are we over-prosecuting?” Mr. Byrne said. “If we decide that someone has a minor transgression and our frontline approach all the time is prosecute, prosecute, prosecute, we’re not using that tool of discretion that we have.”
Most residents in Cayman will interact with police only in traffic situations, and officers often underestimate the importance of that first contact.
“If they run into a police officer who’s shouting at them through the window, what’s the effect of that?” he said. “Our message is that [officers] shouldn’t act brusquely. I have written to some officers about complaints I’ve received about arrogance in dealing with some members of the community.”
This translates into another community policing issue, although a longer-term one, Mr. Byrne said, where an officer’s first contact with a young person can sway that person’s general view of policing and RCIPS officers.
“We’re trying to recruit young Caymanians into the police force. They have to have a reason they want to join,” he said.
Of the RCIPS’s 356 active police officers, 163 are Caymanian and 193 are non-Caymanian. In the civilian section of the force, there are 44 Caymanians and 19 non-Caymanians.
Mr. Byrne said the police service has left the current recruitment class open to encourage more local officers to join, but right now it appears most of the 40 new hires will come from overseas, given the level of interest expressed locally.
“We’ve got to try and get the people who are genuinely interested in [policing] and we’ve got to improve the environment that we’re in. There’s no reason a young Caymanian man or woman shouldn’t want to be a police officer in their country.”