In an attempt to salvage its court-declared compliance status, the Virgin Islands Police Department says it will train all uniformed officers in the use of stun guns. The decision came a few days after a court-appointed federal monitor cited incidents in which a stun gun – also called a Taser* – became the subject of a use-of-force complaint.
On Friday, Attorney General Denise George informed District Court Judge Robert Molloy that Taser certification training will begin shortly. In her filing, George said the effort was an attempt to show the court that “VIPD continues to take action to maintain substantial compliance with each provision of the consent decree.”
In December 2018, a federal judge declared that after nine years the police department had achieved substantial compliance with the terms of a 2009 consent decree over use-of-force policies. At that time, District Court Judge Curtis Gomez said the decree would be lifted if the police could maintain compliance for two years.
At the time it appeared to be the beginning of the end of a long road that began in 2004 when federal civil rights lawyers began investigating use-of-force practices in the Virgin Islands.
Now, in December 2020, a federal monitor charged with keeping an eye on the department’s vigilance says there have been setbacks that threaten the two-year probationary period.
In his quarterly report, submitted to the court on Nov. 20, the head of the independent monitoring team cited three incidents involving use-of-force by police in the Virgin Islands. Two of those incidents involved the questionable use of stun guns.
In one of the incidents cited, an officer who was not certified in the use of a Taser borrowed it from an authorized user and discharged it, striking a suspect.
Other areas cited for noncompliance involved the handling of citizen complaints and oversight decisions made by police managers and supervisors.
“Two years of inconsistent attempts to maintain compliance by the VIPD will conclude at the end of the next quarter,” said monitor Charles Gruber. “The IMT plans to summarize the VIPD’s record of attempts to maintain compliance.”
In an attempt to take authorized use of Tasers off the list of concerns, police officials decided to train and certify all officers.
“To ensure all VIPD officers are certified in the use of VIPD issued Tasers, beginning January 2021, training will be certifying all VIPD personnel who do not have a Taser starting with Patrol, Trafficking and Special Operations Bureau,” George told the court in a Justice Department filing last week.
Molloy had the case reassigned to him after Gomez left the bench earlier this year. He issued an order for the parties in the use-of-force decree to appear at a Feb. 5 hearing in District Court on St. Thomas. The judge also asked the legal teams to submit written arguments ahead of the hearing.
In those briefs, Molloy asked whether the court should grant more time to VIPD to correct the shortfalls cited by the independent monitor.
Parties involved in the use-of-force consent decree include the V.I. Justice Department, representing VIPD; the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas Division; and the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.
The other option would be to declare the two-year period set in 2018 enough time for police to prove they could or could not sustain compliance.
Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor is among the officials who have been attending the quarterly hearings. The commissioner expressed hope that years of effort will result in better public safety protocols.
“VIPD has made tremendous advancement in demonstrating constitutional policing. We have learned through the years, and we are better equipped to serve our community. The department is now closer to the goal of independently and effectively policing our employees through oversight, transparency and documentation,” the commissioner said.
(*TASER is a brand name of electronic stun guns made by Axon, which incapacitates suspects through an electric shock. Over the years the brand name, TASER, an acronym, has become recognized as a generic term for a type of stun gun that fires barbed projectiles at a target, connected by copper wire to a battery which administers the shock.)