Aug. 23, 2005Complaints filing into the V.I. Police Department's Internal Affairs Office have at least tripled over the last two years, due to problems VIPD is experiencing with its younger police force. According to Internal Affairs Director Ray Martinez, this is the biggest problem facing the VIPD today, and has led to a territorywide mistrust of most law enforcement personnel.
"The average age of a police officer these days is about 22 or 23, and I'll be honest and say that the importance of the job hasn't truly set into them as yet. They don't understand what it means to be VIPD, and that's something we have to take care of," Martinez said at a luncheon held Wednesday by the Rotary Club of St. Thomas II at Marriot Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort.
Martinez added that this situation is made worse by the fact that there is a great disparity in age among officers, with large groups of new and senior police, and a smaller population of middle-aged officers. "Our new officers need the training, and most of our senior officers are either getting ready to retire or are close to retirement age. Our concern is that we don't have many individuals on our force who are in the middle who have been with us 15 or so years to help out the new officers."
Martinez added that this trend is bound to continue, and Internal Affairs has to compensate by providing beginning officers with more training and public exposure, as well as discipline.
"We firmly believe in disciplining our officers if they have done something wrong. I field complaints from residents everyday about unfair violations, inappropriate conduct from police officers. In response, what I do is bring those officers in, counsel them, and put them out in the field with senior officers who can show them the right way to do things," Martinez said.
However, Martinez also urged Rotarians to understand that the desire to have a stable job is what has led many V.I. youth to join the force. "Let's be honest it's hard to find a job here in the islands. Being a part of the VIPD is what many turn to, and we've been taking the necessary steps to make sure our men are equipped to do their jobs."
In terms of preparation, for example, Martinez told Rotarians that VIPD officers have received more training in the last two years than ever before. "We have also been working with the University of the Virgin Islands in order to help those officers who need additional skills classes in English and Math."
Since police officers are not required to have a college degree, Martinez said that there has been difficulty with officers communicating effectively and adequately preparing and filing reports.
"We're encouraging our officers now to have some kind of college experience and I think it will help them to have this opportunity with UVI," Martinez said.
While sympathetic to the VIPD, Martinez also said that "weeding out the bad apples" was a priority within his organization. "We have had complaints from a number of residents about encounters where officers may have pulled over or stopped an individual for a valid violation, and had them leave with five or six violations in addition to that first one."
Former Lt. Gov. Derek Hodge gave an example of one such occurrence. "A friend of mine was pulled over for speeding, and was told by the officer to provide his license and registration. However, when he reached in the glove compartment to retrieve these items, he had to take off his seat belt, and the officer wrote him up for that too things like that don't seem to be fair."
In hopes of solving this problem, many Rotarians questioned Martinez as to the advantages of establishing a civilian review board, so that residents not affiliated with the VIPD could review the actions of police officers.
Legislation calling for the institution of the review board was introduced by Sen. Lorraine Berry in February as a part of the Omnibus Justice Act, but was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in March because of concerns that such an entity would infringe upon the duties of the Superior Court and VIPD.
While in favor of the intent of the civilian board, Martinez similarly conveyed that its establishment would also conflict with the duties of Internal Affairs. "The way that the bill was set up implied that the board would be doing our job for us instead, what I think should happen is that the bill be refined to allow the board to handle police compliance with certain policies, instead of fielding complaints."
Martinez added that Internal Affairs did submit a list of suggestions to both VIPD Commissioner Elton Lewis and the Legislature regarding the bill. "At the end of the day, the Legislature is going to do what they want to do we are in favor of the board, but some adjustments need to be made."
Martinez further promised Rotarians that he would do everything he could to ease their concerns but said that police officers have to take more responsibility for their actions. "The VIPD is being called to the forefront now because of a number of events that have tarnished the image that we've been trying so hard to clean up we have no one to blame but ourselves."
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