Saturday, June 18, 2011

Island Watch (catching criminals)

The concept of a “neighbourhood watch” is well established in Cayman. A friend of mine has suggested extending the concept to an island-wide community-alert program: “The Island Watch”, using mobile phones and texting. SMS texts are already used by LIME to notify hundreds (thousands?) of subscribers - all at the same time - of special events.

The Police have said repeatedly that the active participation of the general public is essential in the fight against crime; combining the speed of mobile telecommunications with an island-wide “neighbourhood watch” might be very useful in this regard. The aim would be to mobilise IW members in the vicinity of a reported crime to observe and identify suspected burglars, robbers, muggers, attackers or drugs-sellers – and maybe catch them too, if that could be done safely.

At the moment, witnesses to crimes in progress can phone 9-1-1. The operators there first authenticate the calls as best they can, and then connect the callers to the appropriate unit of the Police. The caller receives no feedback. You make your call, and the Police take it from there at their own pace.

An Island Watch communications base would receive SMS messages from IW members reporting a crime in progress or shortly afterwards, and relay the messages first to the Police (or to 9-1-1, if that service can receive texts) and second to all IW members. The relaying could be virtually instantaneous, unless heavy monitoring or authentication were required: texts in, texts out, texts in, texts out. Photographs would be a bonus.

A question arises, relating to liability in respect of libel, in the event that a message carried the name or other identifiable description of an innocent person. Would some lawyer please advise on this?

The communications base could be provided by Crimestoppers (an independent volunteer committee), or the Chamber of Commerce, or one of our local telecom companies, or even one of the service clubs. (Not the 9-1-1 organisation, I think. Cayman doesn’t need to be adding to government services, at this stage of the game.) I know nothing about Twitter or how it operates; could IW open a Twitter account and give its members access to it? Answers by email, please.

Who might IW’s members be? All residents of Grand Cayman by default would be best, if the telecom companies would allow it. That might deter a lot of crime as well as help the Police identify and maybe catch those whom it didn’t deter. I’m not talking special constables, here, just plain old public-spirited residents of Grand Cayman.

Of course it’s one thing for people to receive incident-alerts and quite another for them to be pro-active in feeding information to the base. Would it be possible to guarantee their anonymity? Maybe not. Calls from cellphones are famously traceable. It would be a foolish expat security guard who put his name out there to be picked up by someone who resents his presence on the Island. An anonymous and untraceable denunciation to Immigration might have him deported in a flash.

Indeed, any expat without Status would be foolish to allow himself or herself to be identified in relation to any incident that might carry the risk of deportation. Is there a way around this problem, or would an Island Watch just have to get by with the citizenry alone?

Any reader with a constructive suggestion to make on this topic, please email it to barlow at candw dot ky. I will forward it to the Brains Trust. The more, the better. Updates will follow here, when there’s something worth reporting.