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Same Witnesses Offer Same Criticisms of Omnibus Bill

May 14, 2004 – In Friday's second public hearing on the proposed Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Omnibus Act of 2004, held on St. Thomas, various witnesses once again told members of the Senate committee of the same name that the multi-part bill needs tweaking.
V.I. law-enforcement officials once again expressed reservations — and in some instances adamant opposition — concerning aspects of the proposed legislation. Their testimony was for the most part a repeat of Wednesday's on St. Croix, with Police Commissioner Elton Lewis once again stating that he is not totally against the measure but believes that "some of the issues addressed in this bill are simply too important to rush."
One issue of concern is the proposed creation of a police civilian review board.
Lewis said — as he had done Wednesday on St. Croix — that the bill makes no reference to the similar functions of the Internal Affairs Bureau. "It duplicates much of the functions of the I.A.B.," he said.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, the committee chair and principal author of the bill, said the bureau's function is, as its name indicates, "internal." The community needs an "outside body" to regulate police, she said.
"A review board that does not review but, rather, investigate will not provide the proper avenue for change," Lewis said.
He said the investigation of police officers by such a review board could negatively affect other investigations being conducted. He also reiterated his Wednesday testimony that the proposed legislation does not take into account police collective bargaining agreements. Various disciplinary mandates are written into the contracts, he said, one being that names of officers being disciplined cannot be made public.
A review board should address systemic problems within the Police Department and not day-to-day disciplinary matters, Lewis said. And "the majority of its members should have a good working knowledge of the criminal justice system and the Police Department in order to make effective decisions," he stated.
Lewis also came out strongly against another provision of the bill that has already been denounced in no uncertain terms by union officials: changing the current 20-year eligibility for early retirement to 25 years. The measure calls for the change to take effect Jan. 1, 2006, the date the current Police Benevolent Association collective bargaining agreement expires.
"I do not support this proposal, as it is discriminatory and a slap in the face to every hard-working, dedicated police officer who places their lives on the line daily," Lewis said.
He also said he is "strongly opposed" to a section of the bill calling for the expunging of criminal records. But he gave his support to the other measures proposed in the bill. (For a breakdown of the various provisions, see "Police Oppose Provisions of Law Enforcement 'Omnibus Act'".)
Attorney General Iver Stridiron, who also testified on Wednesday, said he agreed with Lewis that the legislation should not be rushed. He said does not opposed to the measure; "I simply believe the bill needs to be refined." He added that the Legislature could solicit the help of his office in "perfecting" the legislation.
Berry on Wednesday had pledged her committee "to do the work to get this bill perfected," saying that anyone "interested in seeing this legislation through the process" would be given the opportunity to provide input.
Stridiron said on Friday that certain language in the bill needs reworking. As an example, he cited a section that calls for defining the killing of a police officer or other person assisting in the investigation of a crime as first-degree murder.
"We don't want to charge murder of the first degree just because the person is a police officer," Stridiron said, adding that the charge is predicated on a killing being premeditated or deliberated, and not on who is killed.
Attorney Tom Bolt, chair of the V.I. Uniform Law Commission, said it is good that the bill calls for the adoption of several uniform state laws in effect nationwide, such as the Uniform Trade Secret Act and the Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act. The Virgin Islands "should be in conformity with these other jurisdictions," he said.
Also pledging support for certain portions of the bill were Merwin Potter, acting V.I. Fire Service director, and Leonard Reed, assistant director of the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Environmental Protection Division.
Reed said DPNR is totally in favor of the section transferring responsibility for Hazardous Materials Response (HazMat) from his department to the Fire Service. "The DPNR is an 8 to 5 regulatory agency and has no 24-hour emergency response capability," he noted.
In the afternoon, the committee took testimony from representatives of the Human Services Department, Family Resource Center and St. John's Safety Zone. All expressed support for the bill.
Iris Kern, executive director of the Safety Zone, reading a statement from Carolyn Forno, director of V.I. Care, said senators might have to take a closer look at language in the bill that would set a 10-year prison term and $10,000 fine for willfully transmitting HIV.
"Although we must ensure that people who willfully transmit the HIV/AIDS virus are prosecuted, we must be careful to not further stigmatize those living with the disease," Kern said.

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