The Virgin Islands Police Department has made substantial progress towards processing its backlog of delinquent citizen complaint cases, but overall progress towards complying with a 2009 federal consent decree remains gradual, testifiers at a district court hearing said on Thursday.
VIPD officials and the department’s independent monitors testify on a quarterly basis to progress made towards complying with the consent decree, which followed a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice complaint against the Police Department.
The complaint alleged that VIPD officers showed a pattern of excessive force and that the department was failing to adequately train, supervise, investigate and discipline its officers.
Since 2014 the VIPD has been allowed to move towards compliance via its own set of quarterly goals, which it must present to the court.
On Thursday, St. Croix Police Chief Arthur Hector Sr. testified that during the quarter ending on Feb. 6 the VIPD successfully implemented and followed a schedule to address its backlog of citizen complaint cases.
Hector said that between Jan. 1, 2015, and Jan. 25, 2016, there were 259 delinquent citizen complaint cases against the VIPD.
The department’s number of outstanding citizen complaint cases is now down to 37, only one of which has been identified as delinquent, or more than 30 days past the date it should have been investigated.
Tackling its delinquent citizen complaints was one of nine goals the VIPD set for itself in the last quarter. Seven out of nine of those goals were determined at Thursday’s hearing to have been met, while the deadlines for two have slipped.
Darren Foy, chief of police for the St. Thomas-St. John district, testified that the VIPD met its Dec. 18 goal of implementing a policy that would ensure a supervisor be “on-call” for every one of its shifts.
Foy said the number of supervisors varies by zone. Most zones have three supervisors who work five days a week, but there is sometimes a lack of coverage.
Despite its implementation, the new “on-call supervisor” system appears only to be working some of the time.
Foy testified that there have been seven cases of officer use of force since Dec. 18. Of those seven cases, only four saw a supervisor arrive at the scene. In three cases, two on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas, a supervisor did not immediately respond.
Foy said the issue seemed to him to be “an individual problem” and the VIPD plans to take administrative action against those supervisors who are delinquent in their duties.
“We tend to see a pattern with the same supervisors who are falling short,” said VIPD Deputy Commissioner Curtis Griffin, who is also chief compliance officer for the consent decree.
“We’re trying to build capacity in-agency,” Griffin said. “It’s sort of a Catch-22. If we discipline our supervisors for being delinquent we are removing a supervisor from the job when we need them.”
Griffin said the VIPD is working to change its hiring practices and strengthen its training as part of its compliance with the consent decree.
One goal that was not met by the VIPD last quarter was the implementation of two standard operating procedures, one for a force investigative team and the other for a force review board.
Foy testified that the standard operating procedures have been developed but are not yet finalized. The deadline for adopting the new procedures was Dec. 29, but Foy said they were sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for review this month and the VIPD hasn’t received any feedback.
“Right now it’s in the hands of the DOJ and the independent monitoring team. The draft was a fairly complete draft. There are some minor changes, but essentially I would say it is complete,” said Charles Gruber, monitor for the consent decree.
Due to the delay of the standard operating procedures, the VIPD also missed its deadline for holding the first meeting of its force review board. May 6 is the new deadline for the board to meet.
Despite what Gruber described as “robust and very focused” action taken by the VIPD towards meeting its mandates, last quarter’s reforms brought the department towards compliance on just one sub-paragraph of the consent decree.
So far, the department has met compliance on 31 paragraphs; there remain 20 paragraphs on which it has not met compliance. That ratio hasn’t changed in a year and a half.
“The USA remains frustrated with the VIPD’s plodding pace of compliance,” said Department of Justice attorney Jack Morse.
Morse said despite that frustration, Justice acknowledges positive steps have been taken and maintains “a degree of confidence in the VIPD and its leadership.”
Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs, who represents the Police Department, used the analogy of a tennis match to describe the status of the VIPD’s progress towards compliance. She said sometimes the final score of a match doesn’t suggest the closeness of each game.
The fact that some paragraphs of the consent decree have not yet been complied with, she said, does not reflect how close the VIPD is towards finalizing some of them.
Morse said he agreed that the VIPD appears “poised” to meet its compliance on many parts of the consent decree, but he said the same could have been said at the last quarterly hearing.
“Being poised to come into compliance, however, is quite different than actually coming into compliance,” he said.
Morse recommended that the VIPD intensify its efforts to increase the quality of its supervising staff and present a comprehensive plan with a timeline to the Department of Justice, something which has been repeatedly requested but never followed through on.
The current goal of the VIPD is to be fully compliant by August 2016.
When asked if he thought the VIPD would meet the August deadline, Griffin stopped short of saying yes.
“This case doesn’t have to be one of those that goes on for 20-plus years,” said Judge Curtis V. Gomez, the case’s presiding judge.
Gomez said he believes the seven-year-old consent decree matter will find closure if the VIPD addresses some of the obstacles before it in a more aggressive way.
“It seems to be personnel is a big obstacle” Gomez said.