Criminal justice in the Cayman Islands

A robust, just and fair criminal justice system is one of the mainstays of a successful jurisdiction such as the Cayman Islands intent on retaining its position within the global marketplace. Recent moves to ensure that Cayman’s system is up-to-date and is able to keep pace with the pressures put upon it need to be strengthened with carefully thought-out changes throughout the system as a whole, according to the experts. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull reports in this first in a series of articles.

Pick up a copy of the Caymanian Compass from 25 years ago and the most serious event of the day may have been someone getting knocked off their bike or a break in at a condominium. Sadly, recent tragic killings of young women (Estella Scott Roberts in 2008 and Sabrina Shirn this year) in the Cayman Islands have shaken society to the core. The severity of such crimes means that stakes are even higher in terms of justice being served. Justice needs to be swift and fair if Cayman’s public is to sleep well at night once more.


The community speaks

Acting Police Commissioner James Smith, has undertaken a series of community meetings throughout the districts of Grand Cayman in an attempt to find out what the most serious issues are for Cayman’s public at large. The strength of feeling among the community was voiced forcefully at such events, as Smith confirms, “Community meetings were designed to make the RCIPS accessible to the public. We had hoped to encourage free discussions between the public and the police service and that was certainly the case, though the mood tended to be almost adversarial in some cases.”

Perhaps the strength of the feeling might come as no surprise, given the succession of police chiefs that the Cayman Islands public has had to endure and the feeling of instability that this has created.

On the topic of who leads the service, Smith says it needs to be guided by an individual who has had relevant experience in a significant leadership capacity in another police service outside the Cayman Islands.

“This does not have to be an individual from overseas, but they do need to bring with them experience as an assistant chief constable or above to ensure that they have a strategic level of command. They bring with them new ideas that broaden the strategies already in place on island,” he says.

Smith says he believes that the top cop slot should be rotated every three or fours years to ensure that ideas are always fresh and says he also supports the rotation of officers with those from overseas services, under a mutual exchange programme.

“Changes take place at an enormously fast pace within the criminal justice system and it is vital that we keep a pace with them through training and development of staff,” he states. “Giving staff the opportunity to observe how other police services operate greatly enhances their knowledge which they can put to good use back in Cayman.”

Smith is certain that continuing to strengthen the concept of community policing is an important step in creating a better relationship between the service and the public.

“Such a move is the foundation of good policing,” he states. “I’m a firm believer in listening to the community and working with them as a partnership to beat crime.”

Smith says intelligence from the community is an absolutely essential tool for any police service yet he concedes that resources are often stretched and community policing is the first area from which resources tend to get pulled. He also admits that sometimes the process of retaining information from the public does “break down” and, with such a tightly knit community as the Cayman Islands, this is an important area which needs to be addressed.

“We have undertaken a thorough professional assessment of the handling of information once it is in the service’s possession. Understanding the vulnerabilities of the system means we can put the necessary blocks in place so the public can approach us with real confidence that their information will be dealt with in the utmost confidentiality,” he says.

Police Bill examined

In a bid to further strengthen and improve the criminal justice system, The Police Bill, which was Gazetted in August 2008, seeks to repeal and replace the Police Law (2006) and contemplates a whole range of updates to the way the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service carries out its duties.


Tape recording interviews

The bill has been drafted after careful examination of other jurisdictions’ legislative frameworks and also discussions between the legal fraternity and legislators here in Cayman; however various proposals within the Police Bill have caused queries to be raised by certain legal practitioners within Cayman’s legal aid system, in particular, in relation to the increase in police powers without necessarily a corresponding increase in checks and balances for the police service.

Proposals to improve the way in which evidence is obtained by the service at the police station, once an individual has been arrested, are described in section IV of the Police Bill. Sub section 76 describes how the Commissioner “shall make a rule of practice in connection with the tape-recording of interviews of persons suspected …of criminal offences which are held by police officers at police stations…”

Likewise, in sub-section 77 the Bill says the Commissioner shall make it a rule of practice for the “visual recording of interviews held by police officers at police stations”.

Walkers Legal Aid lawyer Philip McGhee says that implementing tape recording of interviews is a vital step in updating criminal justice procedures, but making it a rule of practice for the Commissioner to implement tape recorders is quite different from making this important procedure mandatory.

Smith concurs that interviews should be taped as a matter of course, yet the facility at the police station within which individuals are interviewed needs to be upgraded before such technology can be properly implemented.

“Tape or video recording of evidence is not mandatory in the UK, but it is best practice and one which we are keen to adopt. We are currently working to ensure that this procedure can soon begin here in Cayman. Interviews need to be undertaken in an adequately sound-proofed room, the interview needs to be recorded on two separate tape recorders, so the individual receives a copy to ensure he has exactly the same recording as we do. Once the tape recording has been made, the chain of evidence has to be properly protected, which means officers have to be trained in how to handle and store such evidence. We anticipate training will have begun by the end of April [at the time of writing] and the procedure should be adopted soon after.”


The question of DNA evidence

What the police service does with DNA and other personal information taken from those individuals who were either never charged or acquitted of any wrong-doing has also been the subject of concern for legal aid lawyers.

McGhee says, “The Police Bill greatly expands the rights of the police to take samples while individuals are in detention. If that person is acquitted or not charged it will now be up to that individual to make a specific request to the police to have that evidence destroyed or handed over to the individual [see section IV sub section 33 of the Police Bill]. The burden is therefore now upon the individual to apply to have the information destroyed, and the Commissioner can always override that request.”

McGhee says that there has been heated debate in the UK on the subject recently and says that while he does not object to the legitimate fight against crime, there need to be safeguards in place to ensure that codes of practice are duly followed, to ensure that there is no mishandling of evidence.

“Under the UK’s Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, a Code of Practice was established in tandem with the legislation to ensure that proper procedures were followed along with the expansion of police powers,” he explains.

“As crime increases and the necessity to increase security grows; society must ensure that this does not lead to an imbalance in civil liberties.”

Smith says he is absolutely “an advocate of human rights” and says that discussions need to take place with all parties concerned – the police service, the lawmakers, lawyers and the community, to ensure that the criminal justice system is operating with the correct parameters when it comes to the taking and retaining of evidence.

Next we examine the issue of how an individual is detained at the police station.


Acting Commissioner James Smith