One year after a federal judge declared the Virgin Islands Police Department had met the terms of a decade-old court order to curb improper use of force, civil rights lawyers say something has gone wrong.
A lawyer representing police challenged the declaration made by the U.S. Justice Department over one alleged violation.
Recent court filings show the problem involving police use of a taser in an impaired driving case has not been resolved. But a separate allegation over the proper handling of citizen complaints is getting more leeway.
In a Dec. 11 brief on the matter, Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas Jacobs explained how the timely handling of citizen complaints got stalled.
On Dec. 19, 2018, District Court Judge Curtis Gomez declared the achievement of substantial compliance. To reach the end goal, police were ordered to stay in compliance on all provisions contained in the 2008 consent decree for two years and to submit quarterly reports to the court showing they had done so. Things appeared to follow the guidelines for the first two reporting periods, but by November’s scheduled compliance hearing, concerns began to grow.
The latest brief filed by Steve Rosenbaum, chief of the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, details the controversy. Rosenbaum pointed to an out-of-policy use-of-force violation cited in a case of driving under the influence.
The Independent Monitoring Team’s reports “have noted instances in which officers deployed tasers against individuals who did not pose a threat to the safety of officers or others, and VIPD’s supervisors and command staff did not recognize or address these unreasonable uses of force,” Rosenbaum said.
Thomas Jacobs answered the use-of-force allegation in a brief filed on Sept. 19. A police supervisor responded to the scene where a use-of-force issue was alleged, but visited the hospital, where someone who was hurt as a result of the action was taken in for examination, she said.
“The IMT takes the position that the supervisor should have travelled to the scene first before going to the hospital. The VIPD disagrees,” Thomas Jacobs said. The Justice Department lawyer also cited another provision in the consent decree that appeared to cover the supervisor’s actions.
In that provision, the police supervisor is supposed to respond to the scene to assess the condition of the use-of-force victim. If that measure is not taken, the supervisor is supposed to explain in their report what they did instead and why.
Rosenbaum agreed the procedure was spelled out but complained that by the time the police supervisor submitted the paperwork, the deadline for doing so had expired.
When concerns turned to the handling of citizen complaints, the special division chief said police offered several steps that they were ready to do to address the problem. On Dec. 11, Thomas Jacobs explained:
“Since around Oct. 31, 2019, two lieutenants, one on St. Thomas, one on St. Croix, have been specifically assigned to assist investigators with active investigations,” she said. The local government attorney added that police developed a specialized training program for managers and supervisors, instructing them on how to handle use-of-force misconduct. Officials from the police department’s training division also submitted the curriculum for a 16-hour instructional lesson plan to independent monitors.
To bolster the effort, police have also redirected a working group that used to review only closed use-of-force cases. Now, Thomas Jacobs said, the working group reviews active cases.
Rosenbaum asked the court to give police more time to work out the handling of citizen complaints. If they succeed, he said, the civil rights division would be willing to say there was a temporary problem and that consent decree compliance remains on course.