When Sen. Sammuel Sanes asked the Legislature on Tuesday to special order his bill to allow the governor to grant peace officer status to federal law enforcement, senators narrowly voted it down with little debate, sending it back for further consideration in committee. But by Wednesday morning, senators on both sides of the issue had strong words about the bill.
The bill, introduced in June by Sanes and Senate President Ronald Russell, [Bill 29-0347 Peace Officer Bill] would allow the governor to deputize federal officers if the police commissioner requests it, giving them the same authority and legal protections as V.I. police officers. It also makes any such federal officers subject to the authority of the commissioner.
Proponents of the measure argued it would give police more help at a time of severe budget cuts and a seeming rising tide of ever more brazen gun violence. Opponents countered that it would not end all crime, and should not be enacted because federal officials have sometimes treated local officials in a disrespectful manner.
After the vote Tuesday, Sen. Neville James said he voted against special ordering the bill "because I don't deal in knee jerk" reactions, suggesting people were embracing the measure as a reaction to recent violence. The past week has seen the shootings of St. Croix Police Chief Chris Howell and Officer Elsworth Jones, the public execution of Christiansted security guard Ecliff Jones while at work, and the murder of "Tiny Jah" Jarvis on St. John.
James said peace officer status "is not the issue" with violent crime, pointing instead to other factors feeding the problem. "We have a literacy problem and we need to address it," he said. The federal government needs to do more to help, without peace officer status, he said.
"This is also about border patrol. The guns aren't manufactured here," James said, adding that the federal government had an obligation to secure the territory's borders, and until it does, guns will continue to come in.
On Wednesday Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe castigated opponents of the measure, saying they were refusing to act out of political cowardice. "Five people call and complain and you bolt," Dowe said.
Constituents are calling, emailing and texting, demanding the Senate do something about crime, Dowe said. "Well there is something here right now and you vote against it," Dowe said.
It is the legal protections more than anything that are important, Dowe continued. "The issue is not can they act, it is afterward, what protections do they have?"
Sen. Celestino White urged colleagues to try again to put the bill on Wednesday's session agenda, but to no avail. "All it is asking is to allow for more boots on the ground to assist the police department, who we all know is short-staffed, is short-paid and under attack," White said.
"We all know it is going to be very difficult to recruit individuals to our department, so we have to start now,” he continued. “Let us welcome them, like we welcome FEMA, which is on its way right now," White said.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said he is not against peace officer status for certain federal officers, but opposes what he called the “carte blanche." Like James, Malone said "people are reacting to recent events," and that the bill would not mean federal officers will be present when crimes occur. He said the measure should be rejected because the federal government does not do enough to keep guns out of the territory.
"The problem is the border. Who is responsible for keeping guns out of the territory?" Malone said.
Sen. Louis Patrick Hill said he supported the measure because it would bring more assistance in the territory's anti-crime efforts, but understood why some opposed it.
"I sympathize and empathize and understand the reluctance of certain senators to support this bill, I really do, because the federal government has a way of overstepping and treating people like s*** in the territory," Hill said, offering a couple of examples of excessive federal action.
"But yesterday, while we were debating this issue, a guy just down the road got shot 10 or 12 times," Hill said, suggesting the violence was a more pressing concern. (See Man Shot to Death in Estate Altona in related links below)
Sanes said he would keep pushing the bill, but felt it had been thoroughly vetted in earlier committee hearings.
"If it has to be done again, I will do it, but as we debate peace officer status the roads are running with rivers of red," Sanes said.
Voting against special ordering the bill onto Tuesday's agenda were James, Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie Richards, Patrick Sprauve, Alvin Williams and Janette Millin-Young. Voting yea were: Dowe, Hill, Russell, Sanes, White and Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O'Reilly. Malone and Sen. Craig Barshinger were absent at the time of the vote.