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Thursday, August 18, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesDeJongh Slams Senate For Delaying Vote on Peace Officer Bill

DeJongh Slams Senate For Delaying Vote on Peace Officer Bill

By not voting on a bill giving peace officer status to federal agents working in the territory, senators are endangering the lives of local residents and thwarting the government’s best efforts to combat crime, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said in a statement Friday.

The Senate’s Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice picked up discussion on the bill Thursday, but its chairman announced after several hours of debate that no vote will be taken until another hearing on the bill is held on St. Thomas.

During the meeting, Police Commissioner Novelle Francis and Attorney General Vincent Frazer said they supported the bill, and urged senators to approve it. Frazer also offered to sit down with senators later and work on tailoring the language in the bill if it didn’t suit, and said he had several other drafts of the legislation ready to go as a compromise.

In the meantime, it would be "imprudent" not to take advantage of the federal agents’ resources, which could help boost the Police Department’s crime-fighting arsenal, Francis added.

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During a recent interview with the Source, deJongh said the Senate’s approval of the bill is crucial in securing the return of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the territory. DeJongh sent the bill to the Legislature last July, after it was discovered that ATF — which helps regulate guns and battle crime — had pulled its four agents and assistance from other federal agencies in the territory had ground to a halt.

` "I think they want to come back," deJongh said in the interview. "But I think they want to have that cover for their agents first."

While senators talked at length Thursday about the territory’s high crime rates, there was much opposition to what was seen as giving "carte blanche" authority to federal agents intervening in local matters. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone referred to similar legislation passed in Guam, where the agents’ authority was scaled back, limiting their involvement.

The bill considered Thursday would give federal agents who are enforcing the territory’s laws the same legal protection give to local police officers, and lays out when those agents can use force.

In his statement, deJongh slammed the Senate for what he described was a "lukewarm reception" of a bill that would lock in the territory’s "valuable partnership with federal authorities in combating violent crime in the territory."

“The committee’s less than expeditious approval in moving this bill forward is yet another irresponsible act that puts political interests above the welfare and safety of the people of the Virgin Islands," deJongh said. "At this moment in the territory’s history when more than 98 percent of last year’s murders were committed by illegal guns, our community is crying out for help. I cannot understand why any senator would be so reluctant to allow this government to be equipped with the tools needed to tackle this scourge."

The bill also will help to make sure other federal agencies stay in the territory, the governor added.

"The lack of action and the posturing of some of the committee members, is in fact, denying Virgin Islanders their government’s best efforts at protecting them from the scourge of gun crime by utilizing the considerable skills and resources of the ATF, and it is outrageous," he said Friday.

DeJongh noted that over the past week, Puerto Rico had its National Guardsmen assisting the local police in order to bring down the homicide rate.

"The Puerto Rico governor’s decision to activate the National Guard is an example of how other jurisdictions are taking all necessary actions to protect their people," deJongh said in his statement. "The Virgin Islands owes its citizens no less."

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