During their appearances before the Commission of Inquiry on June 23, Police Commissioner Mark Collins and Director of Public Prosecutions Tiffany Scatliffe-Esprit discussed their visions for addressing long-standing issues that they said have left their agencies understaffed and underfunded.
Mr. Collins, who sat first before the COI, also described the police force as ill equipped to weed out corruption, often hindered by a lack of trust among the public and officers, and at times unable to train its staff at the level required to adequately enforce the law.
Because of such issues, Mr. Collins intends “to carry out a complete review of the force,” he wrote in his position statement to the COI, which was published on June 21.
In the statement and in livestreamed testimony on June 23, Mr. Collins said one of his most pressing challenges is restoring trust in the police force, which also requires strengthening systems that enforce honesty among the officers.
The systems currently in place are sorely lacking, according to Mr. Collins, who was sworn in as commissioner on April 19.
The vetting process for new officers, for example, does not require any “social media or financial history checks,” and it only requires a “limited” review of a candidate’s criminal history and employment record, Mr. Collins wrote in his position statement.
Even if he were to create a more stringent recruitment process, the new recruits would still require better training than what is currently available, he added.
“A number of officers appear to have the capacity and capability to develop but just do not have the training and experience,” Mr. Collins wrote in his position statement.
As police commissioner, Mr. Collins does have ways of investigating officers suspected of straying from the code of conduct, such as ordering a review of an officer by the force’s Professional Standards Department or ordering a wider-scope review by a foreign agency, he told the COI.
But these measures have so far proved insufficient in ensuring good behaviour amongst all officers, he said.
“On any given day, 80 percent of my officers come to work and do a very good job of supporting and protecting the community,” Mr. Collins said. “But I’ve got concerns about a number of officers in terms of their honesty, the way that they carry out business interests, the way they interact with [the] public — and when I say public, I mean there’s some criminal fraternity as well.”
Allegations of misconduct have thinned out an already depleted police force.
In his position statement, Mr. Collins wrote that nine officers are currently suspended from the force for allegations ranging from making obscene publications to possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply.
At least two of these officers are currently facing charges in connection with a record 2.1 tonnes of cocaine allegedly recovered on a police officer’s property last November.
Following this seizure, Mr. Collins’ predecessor, Michael Matthews, opened a United Kingdom-backed internal investigation into potential corruption amongst police ranks.
Partly because of these misconduct allegations and a culture that allows for dishonesty amongst some officers, public trust in the police force has been eroding, which means that residents are often unwilling to come forward and assist in high-profile investigations, Mr. Collins said.
Some officers are even wary about sharing information among their own peers, he added.
The commissioner also noted that many police officers have business ventures outside of their work in the force, often in the private security sector.
“A chief constable in the [United Kingdom] wouldn’t be signing those off as business interests compatible with being a police officer,” Mr. Collins said.
As part of a forthcoming review of the Professional Standards Department, Mr. Collins wants to implement a register of business interests into that department, he wrote in his position statement.
Lack of resources
These problems are all compounded by a lack of resources, which Mr. Collins blamed in part on an overly bureaucratic system that makes it difficult for him to procure new equipment and fill vacancies in the police ranks.
Out of 270 total positions in the force, there are 67 vacancies, he told the COI.
“What I found quite frustrating coming into the role is the fact that … simple things like filling a vacancy can take me months and months and months. Simple things like finding funding to fix a broken bridge or buying a piece of … equipment can take months and months,” Mr. Collins said.
Describing a convoluted process for updating other offi-cials on security matters, Mr. Collins said that although he reports to the governor on a weekly basis, “some things that I discuss and agree with him … have to be reverted back through the Deputy Governor’s Office.”
To secure funding to fill vacancies, for instance, Mr. Collins has to seek approval from the DGO, which in turn must obtain approval from the Ministry of Finance, the commissioner said.
“Operationally, it’s time consuming, its unnecessary,and its overly bureaucratic,” Mr. Collins said, adding, “I think what I would be suggesting is … an operational budget I can manage and be held accountable for, of course.”
Currently, there are not enough officers assigned to some of the high-profile investigations active into the territory, including murders like the April 18 killing of Catherine Pickering, according to the commissioner.
“In the UK if I was running seven or eight murders, I would have probably 100 detectives working on those seven or eight murders, Mr. Collins said. “Here I’ve only got a team of eight or nine people.”
Joint Task Force
Along with a review of the Professional Standards Department and a restructuring of the vetting process for new recruits, Mr. Collins also wants to rethink the Joint Task Force, he told the COI.
Made up of police, customs and immigration officers, the task force was formed in the early months of the pandemic and billed as a critical resource in shoring up the borders from illegal entrants who could spread Covid-19, and its early missions were often hailed by government as great successes.
In his position statement, however, Mr. Collins wrote, “I would question the operational effectiveness and value for money the unit provides, and I have commissioned a review.”
Responding to questions from COI Counsel Bilal Rawat, Mr. Collins said the JTF sometimes depletes resources needed for other police units, especially the marine unit.
He also said he wants the task force to have a greater focus on intelligence and sharing between the participating agencies.
As part of this review, Mr. Collins has asked to see weekly reports about the JTF’s activities, which will include data about “the general activity on the water,” Mr. Collins said.
This includes “intelligence-led taskings, interactions with vessels on the water, routes that they’ve taken, training activities to be fully confident that we are getting value for money,” Mr. Collins said.
Although Mr. Collins meets weekly with Customs Commissioner Wade Smith and Chief Immigration Officer Ian Penn to discuss the JTF, he has not yet seen one such report, he told the COI.
Some of the challenges that Mr. Collins detailed to the COI were echoed by Director of Public Prosecutions Tiffany-Scatliffe Esprit, who testified after the police commissioner on the same day.
Like Mr. Collins, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said her office is understaffed, and that this is one of the biggest obstacles to effectively carrying out justice in the VI.
“Our complement is very tiny compared to other DPPs in the region,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said. The issue, she added, has roots in the 2007 Constitution.
When her office was formed in 2007, “There was no proper strategic planning in place … so as time went along, there was just that core staff who was the criminal division and one or two secretarial staff, and that became the Office of the DPP,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit explained.
Currently, she added, all four senior Crown counsel positions are vacant, though the office is currently recruiting applicants to fill these roles.
“Ideally my complement should be 25 lawyers, including myself,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said, adding that currently “I have 10.”
But employing prosecutors is often made difficult by the meagre salaries the DPP’s office can afford to pay, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
During her testimony on June 22, Attorney General Dawn Smith said that her office experiences the same problem.
As in the AG’s Chambers, many lawyers who want to work with the DPP frequently end up in corporate law firms that sometimes pay up to $30,000 more per year than the DPP’s office’s starting salary, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
When comparing salaries in the DPP’s office and at a corporate law firms, many prospective prosecutors often say, “‘Sorry, DPP, I really want to prosecute but I have my school loan to pay, I want to build a house, I want to have a life. I can’t do that working for you,’” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
Even if a lawyer decides to forego a career at a financial services firm or other company, they are likely to be siphoned off to another jurisdiction with better pay, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
“Of all the [British overseas territories], I think that the VI is the lowest paid when it comes to prosecutors,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
The $50,000 to $60,000 base salaries currently offered to senior Crown counsels are “unconscionable,” especially when compared to other jurisdictions that offer base salaries of $75,000 for the same position, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
“If I have a very good candidate, and they want to work … in the BVI and they get an offer from another jurisdiction, I cannot compete because I’m limited in my budget in giving them the salary they deserve,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
She also said that the public sometimes underestimates the dangers of life as a prosecutor, and added that better personal security measures are needed.
This year, the DPP’s office has been allocated a budget of $1,569,000, a figure with which it is difficult to run the office, pay salaries, and carry out prosecutions, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
“We get it to work the best way we can,” she added.
This is also a budget that she has seen slowly dwindle year after year, according to the DPP.
“In order for the office to run effectively, we need quite a bit more money than that,” she added.
When it comes to procuring funds outside of the allocated budget, however, things get more complicated, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
For example, when she has had to hire outside counsel for a prosecution, she has had to submit a paper to the National Security Council and to Cabinet to get the additional funding approved, she said.
She also noted that the rates paid to outside counsel approved by government are often far higher than those paid to her own staff.
“I have never had the experience of being turned down, but then again we don’t normally ask too often,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
She added that she also runs into trouble when she recruits new staff.
“Within the past two years … when you’re going to recruit someone, you have to do a recruitment requisition form,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
Before the office can even advertise for a post, the recruitment requisition form first has to be sent to the Human Resources Department and then to the Ministry of Finance for approval, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
“The problems I face are the length of time it takes to get back to us from Human Resources and the Ministry of Finance,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
Like the police commissioner, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit also expressed some frustration at not being granted more money to properly train her legal staff.
“The one part of the budget that is normally cut is the training budget,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said. In past years, the DPP would often send prosecutors to courses offered by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in Miami or other OTs, which helped prosecutors receive training when the funding would otherwise not be available, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
These sessions have not been held since the pandemic, though some prosecutors have been able to take advantage of online trainings, she added.
The Financial Services Commission “has been very supportive … in assisting us in getting us training … in the areas of confiscation, forfeitures, money laundering, those types of topics,” Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
Other areas of training are lacking, however, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
She added that all law enforcement agencies need better training in the seizure of assets other than cash, and in dealing with “covert evidence.”
Criminal procedure law
In her position statement to the COI, which was published on June 21, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit outlined various changes that she thinks are necessary for the DPP’s office, including the passage of criminal procedure laws.
As opposed to the criminal procedure rules in jurisdictions like the UK or St. Lucia, the closest thing in the VI, the Criminal Procedure Ordinance, is “extremely antiquated”, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
A committee was formed in 2018 to draft criminal procedure rules in the VI similar to St. Lucia’s, and a final draft was presented in 2019 and submitted back to the VI, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit said.
“In most Caribbean countries, it is a statutory instrument,” she said. “However, the problem we have is that our magistrates are creatures of statute.”
Ultimately, a law is needed that would govern all levels of the criminal code, Ms. Scatliffe-Esprit added.
“If you really want these rules to work, it needs to be a … piece of legislation that repeals and replaces [the Criminal Procedure Ordinance],” she said.