June 15, 2006–Two motions to approve a bill establishing a civilian police review board were defeated during Thursday's Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee meeting after senators said they would need more time to look over a 12-page amendment circulated 20 minutes before the meeting began.
According to Sen. Lorraine L. Berry, the bill's sponsor, the amendment "simply tweaks" certain sections of the bill to address concerns presented by police officials during previous committee meetings.
She added that the "only major change" is that the amendment clearly outlines what the board is and is not allowed to do. "The rest is basically the same," she said after the meeting.
During the meeting, Berry said that committee members were just playing "political games" and did not want the bill to be approved. "This bill has come up four times," she said. "I don't know what else we want to do with it. And the bottom line is that we either want to take a stand and deal with some of the issues, or we don't."
At the beginning of the meeting, Berry said the bill – which allows the board to hear and investigate complaints made by citizens against law enforcement officers – is designed to "restore the public's trust in the police system" and break the "pattern of misconduct exhibited" by some law enforcement personnel. "Every day we see reports in the news about crimes being committed by the same people who are supposed to be protecting us," she said.
Berry said that police misconduct has continued despite the federal government's ongoing investigation of the V.I. Department of Justice. She said that a preliminary report cited "numerous failures" within the department, including the unwarranted use of "deadly force" by officers, "supervisory oversights" and incidents of misconduct.
However, attorney Daniel Matarangas-King, VIPD legal counsel, said the report didn't mention several new initiatives taken by Police Commissioner Elton Lewis to improve the department, such as firearm training for officers. Matarangas-King also said Lewis has given officers "nonlethal weapon options" such as an expandable batons, pepper spray and Taser guns.
Matarangas-King said that the department is in favor of establishing a civilian review board and that suggestions on how the bill could be improved were submitted to Berry after a previous Senate hearing. "However, there are some things in this amendment that we did not discuss," he said.
Matarangas-King explained that the amendment states that once charges against an officer are filed with the Attorney General's office, then the board is not allowed to review the matter. "That is not how we work within the department," he said. "Even if criminal charges are filed, the department still has to conduct its own investigation if an officer is found to have violated any law or standard. It should be the same with the board."
Matarangas-King said he was also concerned about a provision in the amendment which states that the civilian board would not be able to hear a complaint if it is filed 90 days after an incident occurs. He said this provision would cause a conflict, since the department is required to investigate police matters within a certain timeframe. "After charges are filed, we have something like 50 days to investigate and make a ruling," he said. "So if we make a decision before the board has time to review the matter, then any decision the board makes is null and void. You can't discipline an individual twice."
Matarangas-King said Lewis was also concerned about some of the appropriations included in the bill. "First, we're appropriating $200,000 to create another board," he said. "Second, the bill states that board members get paid $75 for each meeting they attend. Where is our sense of volunteerism? If we have to pay everybody for everything that they do, we would have no money left. That's why the government is broke."
In response to Matarangas-King's concerns, Berry said that the amendment was drafted in accordance with recommendations previously submitted by Lewis. "The only thing that we didn't agree on was the board's right to subpoena individuals," she said. "And that's something that needs to be included."
While Berry urged committee members to adopt the amendment and approve the bill, other senators said they needed to have Lewis review changes and submit a list of concerns.
Since one of the provisions in the amendment also states that the board could handle complaints filed by citizens against "peace officers" hired by any government department or agency, senators said they would also need some feedback on the bill from other government heads.
Berry said senators could still move the bill forward and "clean up the amendment" in the Rules Committee. "We do that all the time," she said.
Other senators disagreed.
Subsequently, a motion made by Berry to adopt the amendment failed, with Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Liston Davis and Louis P. Hill voting against. Berry voted for the amendment, along with Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion and Shawn-Michael Malone.
Another motion made by Berry to forward the original bill onto the Rules Committee also failed, with Barshinger, Davis and Hill voting against and Berry, Encarnacion and Malone voting in favor.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. was absent.
Encarnacion said the bill would be heard again at the next committee meeting, scheduled for Aug. 22.
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