The territory’s existing police standards council will be given more power to investigate and regulate the V.I. Police Department and all other peace officers in the territory, from the V.I. Port Authority to the University of the Virgin Islands security force, if a bill approved in committee becomes law.
Under existing law, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, comprising top law enforcement and judicial officials, has authority to set up standards and training requirements for all law enforcement officers. Internal regulation of peace officers and investigations of officers are handled by the various entities that employ them, with different procedures and regulations depending on the entity.
The V.I. Police Department has an internal affairs bureau that investigates allegations of police misconduct and wrongdoing. Other agencies handle minor matters through their human resources departments and refer alleged criminal behavior to the Department of Justice.
The proposed changes would give the POST council investigative and enforcement powers, along with a mandate to produce a single, standardized operation procedure manual for all peace officers.
The bill "seeks to bring some semblance of order and a process in which investigations can be done … throughout all law enforcement in the territory," Sen. Clifford Graham said as he introduced the bill to the Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.
It initially included all peace officers, but concerns over any potential for affecting the federally mandated consent agreement with the V.I. Police Department over use of force policies led the sponsors to move the VIPD out of the proposal for now. But they hope to bring VIPD back in at a later point, Graham said. An amendment added later in the hearing includes the VIPD 180 days after the end of the consent decree.
Police, V.I. Port Authority law enforcement, V.I. Lottery’s enforcement division, UVI’s security forces, the Division of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and other enforcement officials testified in support of the concept, while raising concerns over details of how it would be implemented and where funding would come from.
Jessica Magras Parris, DPNR’s assistant director, spoke in support of the measure, saying, in part, that DPNR had no internal affairs unit of its own, "so it is very hard to process cases that come in." She said, the human resources department addresses noncriminal concerns and criminal matters are referred to the Justice Department.
Deputy Attorney General Joseph Ponteen said the Justice Department "does not oppose the creation of an internal affairs office," but said it should be established within the Justice Department and there should be "appropriate additional funds allocated for its creation."
If it were not under Justice, "if there was any suspected criminal violations of the law, the result would be that two agencies would be simultaneously investigating the same matter. This could create problems,” Ponteen said, continuing to ask, “What if the Department of Justice feels criminal charges should be filed but the investigation by the Council finds otherwise?"
The committee amended the bill to specify that each law enforcement agency would contribute to the funding for the POST council’s investigations based on their proportional share of the total number of peace officers in the territory.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, a former police officer, was the sole opponent of the bill at the committee hearing.
"While I am in support of the concept of having all law enforcement having one entity to scrutinize misconduct, I am certainly not comfortable with the bill at hand," Gittens said.
"Besides the lack of funding for implementation, this crucial measure should not be left solely to an entity that could be patted with friends or nepotism" he said.
The V.I. Code designates the membership of the POST council. It includes multiple officials appointed by the governor, including the attorney general, the director of Fire Services, police chiefs and others. A section of the amended bill requires POST council members to recuse themselves if a matter regarding a family member is before it.
Voting to send the bill on for more consideration in the Rules and Judiciary Committee were Sens. Jean Forde, Justin Harrigan, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Novelle Francis. Gittens voted no. Sen. Sammuel Sanes was absent.