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HomeNewsArchivesConsent Decree Designed to Check Excessive Force by V.I. Police Officers

Consent Decree Designed to Check Excessive Force by V.I. Police Officers

Feb. 17, 2009 — Local and federal law-enforcement officials have spent the past few months hammering out a plan to rein in the unacceptable behavior of some V.I. Police Department officers. The resulting consent decree, sent to the governor last week for review, now has to be approved by V.I. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez.
In late December, the U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint in District Court alleging that the VIPD has been "engaging in a pattern or practice" of subjecting residents to excessive force by police officers. The department tolerated this misconduct by failing to train, supervise, investigate or discipline its officers, or develop clear policies and procedures to guide and monitor the officers, the complaint states.
"The consent decree order filed with the U.S. District Court puts the police department on track to meet certain constitutional requirements with respect to use of force and, in particular, deadly force," Government House spokesman Jean P. Greaux Jr. said Tuesday. "The investigation which culminated with this consent decree order being filed by the V.I. government had been underway for a number of years, and when presented with the findings of the investigation, a decision was made by both the attorney general and police commissioner to submit to the consent decree and avoid a protracted litigation."
An initial investigation into some VIPD operations — specifically its internal affairs procedures and its training programs — was launched in 2004, and a lengthy report was issued in 2005, according to Attorney General Vincent Frazer. Negotiations for a joint consent decree, which has also been filed in District Court, started in the summer of 2008 in an attempt to address the federal government's complaints, he said.
"When we were presented with the complaint, we felt it was in the best interest of the government to file the consent decree," Frazer explained Tuesday. "We did not agree, or admit to any of the allegations made by the Department of Justice, but we did want to take the steps necessary to make ours a better police department."
Without the consent decree, the government might have faced a lawsuit of massive proportions.
"The federal government would have subpoenaed every officer they thought needed to be brought before the court," said Police Commissioner James McCall. "I mean, it has been alleged that the VIPD deprived citizens of their rights by subjecting them to excessive force — that's pretty serious. So the government decided to take proper corrective measures by entering into this consent decree and making sure all the systemic problems that have plagued the department over the years actually get fixed. "
The VIPD welcomed the federal investigation and has taken steps to remedy the problems, including bringing on new directors of training and internal affairs, McCall said.
U.S. Justice Department investigations conducted over the years on various police departments throughout the nation have also resulted in consent decrees, he noted. In short, this situation is not unique to the Virgin Islands: Police departments in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Jersey and elsewhere have also come under consent decrees supervised by the federal courts. For more information, click here.
Among other things, the five-year consent decree requires that the VIPD:
— review and revise its policies on the use of force while implementing a model that teaches and trains officers how to appropriately respond in various situations;
— ensure that all uses of force be documented in a report that will be reviewed and evaluated by a supervisor;
— revise its policies for off-duty officers that discharge their weapons;
— implement a program for the tracking, filing and investigation of citizen complaints against local officers; and
— provide training for investigators assigned to look into charges of police misconduct.
A risk-management system, or database, for all force-related records and complaints must also be developed, along with a protocol for using the system. The system will be managed by the VIPD's Internal Affairs division, which will conduct quarterly audits on how the system is being used and whether the protocols are being enforced, according to the consent decree. Also laid out in the decree are orders for the department to implement a disciplinary "matrix" with increased penalties for repeated force violations, provide continuous training programs and select an independent monitor to oversee the VIPD's operations.
A VIPD compliance coordinator will also be hired to serve as a liaison between the police department, Attorney General's Office and the federal Justice Department, and ensure that the conditions of the consent decree are met.
Before adding his signature, Gomez can still amend the document, Frazer and McCall said.
"We knew we had to confront these problems," McCall said. "And this really forced us to take a close look at some of the issues we've been dealing with for a number of years. And in trying to make these corrections, we're going to be as transparent as possible. A major issue throughout the investigation was accountability, and that's one area in particular we're trying to emphasize."
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