Government watchdog contends with years of police complaints

Sandy Hermiston - Photo: Kayla Young

When the first Cayman Islands ombudsman, Sandy Hermiston, stepped into the job in September 2017, her office immediately assumed years’ worth of backlog.

The Police (Complaints by the Public) Law, 2017, had come into effect just months before, relegating seven years of unprocessed statements to the newly established office.

In 2018, the Office of the Ombudsman took on 143 cases of police complaints. Sixty-seven of those cases were carried into 2019.

That category represents just one of many that the office has been tasked with as part of its mandate to serve as an independent watchdog over government operations.

There are also whistleblower cases, data protection concerns, government maladministration complaints and freedom of information requests to contend with.

Much of the Office of the Ombudsman’s work during its first year and a half in operation has involved setting up procedures for managing such complaints.

Hermiston said the experience has been akin to building a plane while it’s being flown.

“I was fully aware of how challenging it would be – as aware as you can be. I’m not very surprised by what I found when I got here [from Canada]. I was excited by the challenge of trying to take it on and make it work,” she said.

“There is a lot to do to set this up and get everybody ready to really do the job. So we’ve always continued to accept complaints but we haven’t been out there looking for more work. I’ve maintained a bit of a low profile for a very good reason. If we are going to have people coming to us, we need to be ready for them.”

Right now, the office is working to add three more positions to its 13-person team and expects to move into new offices soon, in an effort to improve workflow and capacity.

Backlog

Deputy Ombudsman Ted Miles, hired in lieu of seconded deputy Sharon Roulstone, has been tasked with the heavy lifting of processing old police complaints.

Miles said his department is now working to unbury itself from under the pile with the ambitious, yet admittedly unlikely goal, of processing the backlog by the end of the year.

“One of the biggest challenges on my side of the house right now is that … for a period from 2010 until that point in time when that [police complaints] law became enacted, no one had the authority to deal with complaints by the public. The [complaints] commission did not,” Miles said.

Ted Miles – Photo: Kayla Young

“So, although the RCIPS continued to collect those complaints through the professional standards unit, they were never brought to a conclusion or to fruition. So they’ve sat on the shelf.”

The task has been akin to that of a cold case detective. As the team works to track down old complainants, they have found many no longer wish to pursue their cases, while others have not been found.

For those cases the office has been able to reopen, however, each has been a trial of its own for the ombudsman.

“It’s always the test, when you receive a complaint, how well the process is going to work. It’s all that kind of fine-tuning. I think we’ve had a really good chance to do that on the police side and we’re getting closer to having a solid idea of how those go,” Hermiston said.

So far, she said government bodies have been open to her recommendations and that none to date have been refused.

The willingness of government to play ball with the ombudsman is important to the office’s functionality. Without enforcement power, the ombudsman must depend on government’s willingness to do the right thing.

“My job isn’t to be an attack dog. My job it to be a watchdog; and those are two really different things,” Hermiston said.

“I think some people sometimes expect me to be an attack dog but that’s not what an ombudsman does. An ombudsman is supposed to be fair to both sides. We are impartial. So we don’t take the government’s side and we don’t take the complainant’s side. That’s been a balancing act that we are always mindful of.”

While Hermiston cannot dictate, she can persuade.

“We don’t have enforcement powers. We like to call it ‘moral-suasion’. That we need to use moral-suasion in order to convince them that this is something that they should adopt,” she said.

If the day comes when government rejects a recommendation, however, Miles said they are prepared. At this point, he said their office would make the matter public and employ the power of the press to shed light on the issue.

Another measure to keep government accountable, which Hermiston hopes to pursue in the future, is an ‘own motion’ investigation. In such cases, the ombudsman takes it upon herself to pursue a matter, without the prompting of a complainant.

“I can say, I see this thing here that looks like we should look into it and then we’ll do an investigation and the report about it. Those kinds of reports are sort of like what you would do as an investigative journalist,” she said.

One small example of an ‘own motion’ initiative was the recent release of a 2010 report by Deloitte on the needs of the Sunrise Adult Training Centre. When Hermiston read in the press that the nearly decade-old report had been kept private, she went behind the scenes to persuade government to release the document.

She said she hopes to take on more ‘own motion’ cases in the future.

For now, Cayman’s pending Data Protection Law, taking effect 30 Sept., will take up much of the office’s resources. Preparing small businesses for the legislation is a major priority.

“It’s really awareness at this point,” Hermiston said. “The people I worry the most about are the small business owners. It is not going to be onerous for them. We’re looking at putting some tools in place to help them comply. Our view is that we’re not out there to play whack-a-mole. We’re out there to help people comply with the law.”

The Office of the Ombudsman offers free workshops to businesses about data protection. In the last quarter of 2018, Hermiston said they conducted 45 sessions, each with 10 to 40 people in attendance. She is expecting to conduct many more workshops in the coming months.

To read more about the Office of the Ombudsman, visit https://ombudsman.ky.

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