At 5:58 p.m. Tuesday evening, Police Commissioner Derek Byrne was sitting at a table all alone in the meeting room of the James M. Bodden Civic Centre in the Bodden Town district.
Mr. Byrne was the first one to arrive for the public meeting that evening. Another 40-50 people showed up after the commissioner.
“C’mon in, you can ask me any question you want now,” Mr. Byrne said to an arriving attendee.
The veteran of the An Garda Siochana police service in Ireland said two sentences to start the meeting, asking residents to provide input on what they thought police could improve. As the course of the evening went on, other RCIPS officers spoke at length about plans to improve policing, but Mr. Byrne largely remained silent – listening to more than two hours of concerns from the public.
Local restaurant owner Tony Powell told of one instance where an officer who had pulled his wife over yelled at Mr. Powell to “get out of here” when the restaurateur arrived on the scene of the traffic stop. Mr. Powell questioned whether anyone would have simply passed by if they saw their spouse pulled over at the roadside.
“That cop will never get one piece of information from me because of his behavior,” Mr. Powell said, adding in another anecdote where RCIPS officers were apparently called to his restaurant by a customer who did not receive French fries with his order.
“Confidence in the police has eroded over the years,” Mr. Powell continued, urging police officers to stop by his restaurant and others while on duty. “It won’t come today, but we can slowly start to work with you. All the people in the eastern districts are ready to offer you coffee, juice … they won’t give you information unless they are familiar with you.”
Commissioner Byrne responded to Mr. Powell’s concerns: “If we fail to listen, if we fail to hear, we fail.”
Mr. Byrne and RCIPS Inspector Winsome Prendergast told the civic center audience that a significant number of officers have been swapped out from the from Bodden Town station and replaced with new ones. In addition, four new community “beat” officers have been assigned to Bodden Town strictly to walk the neighborhoods and meet local residents.
“Too many times, we have complaints that officers are driving by with their windows rolled up,” Inspector Prendergast said. “We’re looking at what we can do to improve our service.”
Over the past two years, there have been a number of attacks on RCIPS officers that have led to concerns about police safety. Those include the vandalization of a car belonging to a police officer who had responded to a quadruple fatality crash in East End last year, an arson attack on two vehicles owned by a police commander, and half a dozen assaults leading to serious injuries – including one officer losing an eye and another losing his two front teeth.
Mr. Byrne said early in his term as commissioner that the RCIPS “will not abide” attacks on police officers, but that the problem of officers being assaulted while doing their jobs also needs to be addressed by community policing and rebuilding relationships.
“Police officers are members of the community who are asked to go out and police that community,” Mr. Byrne said. “I’m seeing a lot of aggression, a lot of abuse [toward those officers]. These [officers] are the frontline defense coming to assist members of our community. We must challenge that fundamental relationship.”
On Monday, the RCIPS launched its fully revamped community policing efforts, assigning a total of 27 police officers on Grand Cayman to perform the same tasks the four community officers in Bodden Town will be doing over the next two years. Mr. Byrne said additional community “beat” officers may be added to the eastern districts as time goes on and need dictates.
Head of community policing, Inspector Courtney Myles, believes the effort has already seen an impact.
“We recently did a walkthrough in Swamp [central George Town neighborhood],” Mr. Myles said. “The public was overwhelmed. They said ‘this is what we want. We want to be able to trust them.’
“I can say right now, the trust is going up on a daily basis,” Inspector Myles said.
RCIPS Superintendent Robbie Graham cautioned that while community policing officers are often placed in the role of “problem solvers,” they will need help from other government agencies to clear up things like derelict cars, stray animals and pothole-ridden roads.
“What we can’t do is solve these issues on our own,” Mr. Graham said. “It’s a partnership engagement that’s focused on solving these issues.”
“If you get to know [the police] and what you stand for, the members of the community will have your back,” Mr. Myles said. “They will stand by you, we’ve seen it. I’m certain that going forward, the public will trust the police force more.”