One and one-quarter years after the top brass at the Virgin Islands Police Department cleared a hurdle towards successfully meeting the terms of a federal consent decree, they learned Wednesday how close they are to losing all they’ve worked for.
At a quarterly hearing held to measure continued compliance, a court-appointed compliance monitor said the police department was still logging violations involving use of force against civilians.
For more than a decade, VIPD has struggled to account for outstanding complaints about use of force involving officers. Officials have also worked to create a policy spelling out how and when force can be used, how to report those instances and how supervisors determine if use of force was appropriate.
The judge who has overseen the enforcement of a settlement between police and the U.S. Department of Justice expressed disappointment after the court-appointed monitor testified at the Wednesday hearing. Witness Chet Epperson said over the past three reporting periods there have been more than a dozen use-of-force reports, including one that involved a top police official.
In December 2018, the court declared the police department had reached substantial compliance with the settlement reached over a civil rights lawsuit brought by U.S. Justice.
To have the matter declared resolved, police would have to maintain that status for two years.
But investigators with the Independent Monitoring Team found that three weeks later – in January 2019, the unnamed top official used excessive force against a suspect detained for driving while intoxicated.
Investigators also found the incident involved the use of a body camera, which was turned off during the first half of the incident and turned on for the rest. The subject of the investigation quit the force while the investigation was still underway.
“We find ourselves in a troubling position, three quarters where Paragraph 37 issues have been raised. This could be seen as a very bleak picture,” said District Court Judge Curtis Gomez.
Paragraph 37 – part of a 51-paragraph settlement with U.S. Justice – speaks directly to the use of force.
Gomez, Epperson, V.I. Justice attorney Carol Thomas-Jacobs all commended police for the extraordinary efforts made to resolve old cases, set up a use-of-force policy and train officers and managers on the policy. As of the Wednesday hearing, 46 of the 51 steps were in compliance.
But the judge said for the department to hold onto substantial compliance, all provisions must be met.
As the special monitor answered questions from federal civil rights attorney Jeffrey Murray, Gomez posed a question of his own. Is VIPD still meeting all the terms required for substantial compliance, he asked.
No, Epperson said, they are not there yet. But, he added, the system created by the use-of-force police was in place and are working.
Deputy Police Chief David Cannonier told the court about a training session held for police commanders and supervisors. But he paused to ponder a question from the bench about whether officers were reluctant to report an incident involving a top commander.
“Sir, that’s a deep question. I think there’s a culture in law enforcement that wants to protect certain of its members,” he said, “but I don’t think there’s a concerted effort in my department to willfully overlook certain things.”
Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor said he has seen instances where use of force would be justified, but officers were reluctant to act.
“The officers have heard a lot of dialogue about use of force. I think officers are very considerate and there are times where use of force may have been appropriate, given the circumstances. But they are reluctant to use force in those situations. I think the officers are concerned that they act in compliance with use-of-force policies,” Velinor said.
Thomas-Jacobs defended the department, calling the special monitors hyper vigilant. It feels as if the monitors have a higher standard for the VIPD than the U.S. Constitution requires, she said.
“There is no perfect police department anywhere in the United States,” Thomas-Jacobs said.
The judge took exception to those comments. Gomez pointed out that the Virgin Islands Police Department was under scrutiny because it violated the civil rights of residents by going overboard with its use-of-force practices.
If the court decides to strip the department of its status, the two-year timeline starts over again, once substantial compliance is declared once more. Gomez said the court may seek a partial remedy instead.