A Department of Planning and Natural Resources enforcement officer involved in a July 2012 action viewed by Coral Bay boaters as heavy handed was reprimanded on the advice of the Justice Department, DPMR Commissioner Alicia Barnes said in a press release issued Thursday.
The press release did not identify which of three officers involved in the incident received the reprimand, and Planning spokesman Jamal Nielsen said the department was not going to release the officer’s name.
Several Coral Bay boaters said they were relieved to know that the report was finally issued more than six months after the incident occurred.
“But they definitely violated our civil rights,” Coral Bay boater Will Hudson said.
Sandy Mohler, who owns Coral Bay Marine, said that at least there was some sort of accountability regarding the incident.
“Government employees can’t abuse their power and intimidate citizens,” she said.
Hudson added that the enforcement officers were on an “intimidation rampage.”
Boaters said the officers cut mooring lines, put violation stickers on boats they believed weren’t registered, demanded pedestrians show identification, and waved guns around in their sweep through Coral Bay.
One security camera video shot July 25, 2012, captured images of three officers conversing in the parking area near the Coral Bay dinghy dock. While Roberto Tapia, who heads Enforcement, has claimed the rifle was on a strap over the officer’s shoulder, the video that was posted on YouTube clearly shows that wasn’t the case.
The press release indicated the department recognized that the officers exercised poor judgment in the handling of their weapons and in the execution of their duties.
“Although there was no finding of wrong doing or malicious intent, DPNR has followed the guidance from the Attorney General’s Office,” Barnes said in the press release.
After the incident, Barnes called for an investigation by the Justice Department. Nielsen said Barnes received the report last week.
In addition to the reprimand for the officer and the poor judgment acknowledgement, the press release indicated the report called for annual refresher courses for officers at the Police Department’s training academy.
“It’s obvious they need training,” Hudson said.
Barnes said in the press release that officers already get annual week-long refresher courses covering topics from constitutional law to firearms recertification.
The report recommended that Planning officers should advise persons receiving citations that failure to pay the fine will result in a summons to appear before the Superior Court, which allows the person to contest the ticket. According to the press release, this will reduce the occurrences of these incidents and allow the court to interpret the law and provide guidance to both parties involved in the matter.
“We definitely don’t want incidents like this to happen again,” Nielsen said.
Barnes said the department will “take serious note and action when complaints of this nature are filed.”
The report indicates that according to the V.I. Code, peace officers have the authority to stop and board any vessel to enforce the safe operation of all motor vessels. This authority includes DPNR enforcement officers.
The report concludes that Planning officers had legal authority to board the vessels in question during the July 2012 action.
According to the press release, the investigation included interviews from both the Coral Bay boating community and the Planning enforcement officers involved in the incident. During the investigation, Tapia confirmed that the division was involved in a week-long initiative in Coral Bay to rid the area of illegal moorings and to ensure vessels were registered and had mooring permits.
This effort was initiated by St. John residents who have registered vessels and legal moorings and by concerned Coral Bay residents who want to see increased enforcement and cleanup of the Bay.
Nielsen declined to provide a copy of the attorney general’s report.