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HomeNewsArchivesWhen Officers Cross the Line: An In-Depth Look at Police Internal Affairs

When Officers Cross the Line: An In-Depth Look at Police Internal Affairs

June 5, 2007 — Putting criminals behind bars can often be a long and tedious process for local law-enforcement officials — especially when the perpetrators happen to be employees of the V.I. Police Department.
Much like any other crime committed within the community, cases such as Police shootings or other violent attacks can also be stymied by obstacles ranging from government pardons to a lack of cooperation from witnesses. However, with limited information garnered from local media reports, members of the community are seldom given the opportunity to look behind the scenes and explore what factors can undermine the department's ability to properly prosecute or punish an offender.
More high-profile cases, such as those involving the use of deadly force, often make it to the front page in bold headlines. But residents also may not be aware that the lion's share of the VIPD's problems are often far less glamorous, with officers getting called on minimal offenses such as insubordination or poor attendance on the job.
According to documents obtained from VIPD's Internal Affairs division, a majority of the offenses committed by Police officers over the past four years have been one-time transgressions, often settled through short suspensions or a few weeks without pay. Out of a possible 64 incidences recorded by the department since 2003, 23 fall into this category, ranging from "discourtesy" to "feigning sickness" while on duty.
Of course, officers have also been brought up on more serious charges over the past few years. Most recently, a series of Police shootings in mid April brought renewed attention to the department, and increased scrutiny into how officers are punished.
Many of those cases are still under investigation. Internal Affairs documents indicate that previous cases involving officers such as Joel Dowdye and Earl Rogers have made it full circle. They have come through both VIPD's internal-investigation process and a criminal investigation launched by the Department of Justice. In both cases, the officers were also cut from the force, with recommendations for termination approved by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
Officers going through the legal process are not always found guilty of the charges against them, Internal Affairs documents indicate. In 2003, for example, an officer was placed on a five-day suspension without pay for discharging his weapon into a vehicle. While the officer was subsequently arrested and charged with assault and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence, a 12-member jury rendered a verdict of not guilty on both charges.
In another case from December 2004, officers Bill John-Baptiste and Dorian Foster were arrested and charged with kidnapping. A jury also acquitted them. However, both were subsequently terminated after the completion of a VIPD investigation.
Of the 64 recorded cases documented by VIPD over the past four years, seven officers have been fired, arrested or found guilty by a jury for such crimes as the misappropriation of government funds, possession of stolen property and murder.
Four of the cases are domestic-violence related, while another is recorded simply as "improper use of force."
According to VIPD's Internal Affairs procedures, officers are automatically recommended for termination if found guilty of a felony or misdemeanor.
Obstacles
While most of the cases documented by Internal Affairs since 2003 appear to have been resolved through an internal or criminal-investigation process, several remain that have either gotten delayed or halted by a lack of evidence. Others have been crushed at various stages of the termination process, according to VIPD records — ending at times with a pardon from the governor.
During a recent interview, Police Commissioner James H. McCall detailed several obstacles the department faces when handling cases related to local officers. One of the most significant impediments, he said, is that witnesses — individuals filing complaints against a particular officer — often do not come forward during the investigation process.
This sentiment has been echoed by Attorney General Victor Frazer, who recently said that the intimidation of witnesses — sometimes even by other officers within the VIPD — has prevented cases from going to trial.
Once incorporated into the legal system, however, other obstacles may stymie some cases. In October 2004, for example, VIPD employee Riise Richards was suspended without pay after getting arrested for a multitude of charges, including obtaining money under false pretenses, grand larceny and the embezzlement of public funds. Although found guilty of the charges, V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall put Richards on probation, according to court documents.
Richards is now suing the department for wrongful termination. Calls made to Kendall to discuss the matter were not returned.
Lack of accountability within the Police Department has also proven to be a problem, McCall recently explained.
"More often than not, we, in terms of the department, have not really carried out our duties as we should have," he said. "Supervisors, for example, are not holding the officers accountable for their actions. The supervisors are the first line of defense — they build the case. But management also has to hold the supervisors accountable, and the community has to hold management accountable. It's a team effort."
On the other hand, he said, cases that have been properly channeled through the investigative processes may also be dealt a blow from the highest level — the governor. According to Internal Affairs documents, at least three recommendations for termination made over the past four years were rejected by Turnbull or a member of the previous administration acting in the capacity of governor.
Cases include:
— in 2004, a VIPD officer was recommended for termination after failing one of the department's drug tests. After being placed on administrative leave, the officer was reinstated by Turnbull on March 25, 2004;
— in 2004, Officer Jerome Blyden was brought up on charges of attempted first-degree murder. Blyden still has both internal and criminal investigations pending against him. He has been recommended for termination twice, but both requests were denied by an individual acting in the capacity of governor. The Source has been unable to verify whether this person was former Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards.
— in 2005, A VIPD officer was put on an eight-day suspension for personal conduct and conduct unbecoming an officer. While the department recommended termination, Turnbull rejected the request.
Goals for the Future
With a sworn population of about 400 officers, problem individuals within the department are "very few," McCall said, with Internal Affairs documents showing less than 10 repeat offenders within the past four years. Still, McCall said, he and other VIPD officials will work aggressively to reduce the number of police-related incidents, particularly through the implementation of counseling and training programs.
The number and nature of police-related incidents generally mirrors the rest of the U.S. population, McCall said, but he insisted law-enforcement officials should be held to a higher standard of the law.
"I feel that even one incident is too many," he said. "And our officers, who are tasked with the responsibility of enforcing some of the laws that are being violated, will be held to a higher standard."
Officers will also get the option of participating in several new initiatives which McCall is trying to launch within the VIPD, including a formal critical-incident stress-management program. While the department currently has a psychologist and psychiatrist on contract, officials are trying to bring a full-time counselor on staff, McCall added.
"The addition of such a program will be to help detect issues experienced by the department's employees," McC
all said. "Everything will be confidential — that's a major part — and I think that it really will help if everyone takes advantage of it."
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