Police Share Use of Force Developments at Town Meeting

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Judi Shimel photo.

Nine years after a federal court ordered police to set policy over the use of force by its personnel, top officials of the Virgin Islands Police Department decided to let the public know how much progress they’ve made.

For three days last week, the public took part in town meetings covering the subject. About 20 residents of St. John joined the meeting last Thursday in Cruz Bay.

Similar meetings were held Wednesday on St. Thomas and Friday on St. Croix.

According to a 2012 federal consent decree, VIPD was directed to set up policies and a reporting system and to subject their efforts to review. Police Commissioner Delroy Richards told the gathering he has made compliance with the order his goal.

Then he introduced the VIPD compliance team, led by Deputy Commissioner Curtis Griffin serving as chief compliance officer.

In 2004 federal authorities determined there was a pattern of practice within VIPD involving excessive use of force. Eight years later, in 2009 the parties in the complaint reached a consent decree to correct those practices.

“We all thought it was very important for you to know what we are under, the fact that we are under this consent decree; how close we are to exiting the consent decree and (for you to) be able to ask questions about the consent decree,” the commissioner said.

Progress has been made, Griffin said, but the more authorities dug into the compliance steps, the more they understood how much work lie ahead.

The process of drafting policies, training police personnel and court directed oversight was supposed to take five years. But the compliance officer said deficiencies in VIPD kept that from happening on time.

“When it came to us carrying out the consent decree it seemed good on paper. But once you start to do it, you find out you don’t have the capacity to do it,” Griffin said.

But through the process, he said, one thing became clear. “Right now we rarely use force that causes serious injury or death,” he said.

The most frequent complaint, he said, was officers lacking courtesy, which is considered a low-level offense. If a complaint about harsh remarks appears on a complaint form it gets compiled into a data report which is then used to improve training.

Questions were raised by the audience. Angel Bolques asked how information collected from police reports and civilian complaints are converted into useful data. That work is done internally, through a system of audits, Griffin said.

“In fact we have to do an annual use of force report. It’s just about due. We’ve never issued it publicly, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming,” he said.

Internal Affairs Director Chenelle Skepple explained how complaints on police use of force are handled.

Prior to the consent decree, police in the Virgin Islands relied on a policy set in 1985 which left the use of force up to the discretion of individual officers. Those complaints that reached Internal Affairs were kept in handwritten logbooks.

Not all complaints were investigated, Skepple said. Those that were, were done in secrecy.

After the court intervened the department adopted an electronic risk management system. Information from all complaints is logged into that system.

“We can enter what types of cases we’re looking for — we’re looking for use of force cases. We can search it by years, we can search it by involved officer, by the type of use of force and we can also do the same for citizen complaints,” Skepple said.

Revamping the system also made it possible for police to break down the number and severity of cases. Skepple said in 2017 VIPD logged six cases involving officer-involved shootings or where lethal force was used.

There were two cases where a police encounter resulted in injury to civilians requiring hospitalization. Five reports going to Internal Affairs involved police use of restraint.

Forty-four cases involved citizens being struck by officers or being forced to the ground. One hundred twenty cases were deemed less serious, not resulting in injury.

A specially trained force investigation team carries out the work. “They are responsible for determining whether police encounters resulting in use of force fall within VIPD policies,” the IA director said.

The team includes the chief of police, forensic technicians, and Assistant Attorneys General. According to policy each case is supposed to be completed in 50 days or less, although Skepple said meeting the time frame remains a challenge.

Citizens filing complaints are also informed by letter that their case is under investigation. They also receive a letter once the process is complete, informing them of the outcome.

After hearing about the VIPD complaint and compliment form created as part of the compliance, retired National Park Service Ranger Elmo Rabsatt asked why that was necessary.

“It should not take a citizen complaining on your police officer acting improperly or inappropriately. You train your people to serve the public. They should be consistent. That’s what we train them for,” Rabsatt said.

Over the course of a career in local and federal law enforcement, he said he became the subject of complaints himself, some which were not justified.

Harry Daniel retired from VIPD after more than 20 years on St. John and is now commander of American Legion Post 131. He asked about the things police cadets are learning in the Police Academy as a result of the consent decree.

The chief compliance officer also announced that for the first time the annual use of force report submitted to District Court will be made public.

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