A bill to grant federal law enforcement officers authority to arrest suspects with probable cause for violations of local law was held in committee Friday when three senators left the hearing, depriving it of a quorum and preventing a vote. Two of the three senators who left were opponents of the measure and the third said she was on the fence on the question prior to their departure.
The bill, introduced in June by Sanes and Senate President Ronald Russell, would allow the governor to deputize federal officers if the police commissioner requests it, giving them the same authority and legal protections as V.I. police officers. It also makes any such federal officers subject to the authority of the commissioner.
Attorney General Vincent Frazer and Police Commissioner Henry White testified in support of the measure. Frazer said it would bring more assets to bear to fight violent crime in the territory at a time of budget cuts.
"It will give the V.I. Police Department additional boots on the ground to enforce the laws of the territory," Frazer said to the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice. He suggested opposition to the change was primarily coming from a small number of police officers concerned more about personal resentments than law enforcement.
"If these officers were true to their oath they would be glad for the help, glad to know that in a bad situation there is a federal agent close by that can assist them for a short time until local officers show up," Frazer said. "And as I said before, it does not give any more power than agencies already have, so that cannot be the objection."
Cpl. Elroy Raymo, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Police Benevolent Association, testified against the measure, saying local PBA members opposed the change.
"There are trust issues here," he said, saying federal officials have sometimes spoken disparagingly about local police, with one federal officer allegedly referring to the department as "backwoods" during a stateside event.
Senators on both sides of the issue agreed that trust, respect and cultural sensitivity were important concerns when considering any change to the local powers of federal officials.
"There appears to be some animosity between federal and local officers and how we get beyond that will take some maturity and sitting down for discussion," said Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O'Reilly. She said she had concerns about the bill and opposed it previously, but was "keeping an open mind." There was an amendment in the nature of a substitute that would seek to address cultural training and competency, "and some triggers so it can be piloted, tried as a pilot program and if it doesn't work, it can be retracted."
Rivera-O'Reilly asked Raymo how the trust and respect issues he mentioned impacted his duties or would be helped by denying peace officer status.
"I remember some of these agents are very cocky," Raymo said, recalling a situation where federal agents called local police "backwoods and whatnot."
"That is unfortunate, but it is the past. Looking forward, how does it affect your performing your function?" Rivera-O'Reilly asked.
"We will still protect and serve, but you have to have somebody protecting your back. You may not want to do your job fully because you feel the federal agent is looking over your shoulder and judging your performance," Raymo said.
Sens. Carlton "Ital” Dowe and Celestino White both argued the bill would help the territory receive critical assistance, which they argued was more pressing than resentments over past cultural insensitivity. Recalling his experience as a U.S. Marshal, Dowe said witness protection was one area where there was an urgent need for more federal help.
Sens. Usie Richards and Alvin Williams argued vigorously against the measure, emphasizing the inherent powers the federal government has over the territory and its failure to effectively patrol its borders and keep guns and drugs out.
Richards said he was concerned about granting federal agents authority "on this territory which is a piece of property of the United States," and about those agents "taking on these duties when they have failed, at least in my mind, on the duties they have."
During testimony, six senators were present, with only Sen. Ronald Russell absent. Shortly before the measure was to be voted upon, several senators left the hearing.
"I notice there were six senators present and now we have three. Oh, the games some senators play," said White.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the bill's sponsor, castigated his colleagues for what he termed delaying tactics. "Senators, do your job. Be a senator. Vote no or vote yes, but vote," Sanes said, promising to keep bringing the measure back.
"It ain't over ‘til the fat lady sings, and this will come up again and again," Sanes said.
The committee went into recess after a quorum call determined there were too few senators present to act.
Present were Dowe, Sanes and White. Absent were Richards, Rivera-O'Reilly, Russell and Williams.