Consent decree report: VIPD progress hindered by managers' reluctance to discipline officers


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ST. CROIX - The V.I. Police Department needs to better monitor and discipline its own personnel, although it is making progress in meeting some of the mandates for improvement contained in a federal consent decree, according to a recently released report.

Meeting the mandates will require significant work by police, Independent Monitor Steven Witzel wrote in the report, which was released last week.

Witzel and a team of police practice experts monitor the V.I. Police Department's efforts at reaching compliance with the consent decree, then Witzel reports the situation to the court. The latest report covers the final quarter of 2013.

"With a concerted, multi-dimensional effort by the VIPD, continued active involvement by the court, and financial support by the territory, we are cautiously hopeful that substantial progress can be made in 2014," Witzel wrote.

However, Witzel also said it will require "serious and sustained effort" by police because significant work still needs to be done.

The 2009 consent decree was designed to provoke changes to fix what federal civil rights lawyers contend was the V.I. Police Department's practice of violating residents' civil rights by using excessive force and then tolerating that conduct by failing to adequately train, supervise, investigate and discipline its officers and by failing to establish consistent policies, procedures and practices to appropriately guide and monitor their actions.

Although the territory agreed to make the required improvements, it has repeatedly missed the deadlines in the case. Court orders were eventually necessary to push the deadlines back more than once.

A major deadline in the consent decree - an already-extended, overarching deadline for the territory to reach full compliance with all the provisions - passed by with the mandates unmet on Oct. 31.

District Judge Curtis Gomez currently is considering a request from the parties to extend that deadline again, this time to Oct. 31, 2015.

During a hearing this week, he heard arguments from both sides on the idea of creating a new position aimed at keeping the Police Department on task with implementing the consent decree.

Latest report

Among the issues highlighted in Witzel's most recent report, which comprises 157 pages, are experts' concerns about the V.I. Police Department's use of excessive force on those deemed mentally or emotionally disturbed; the lack of progress in implementing an early intervention program to identify and address potentially problematic behavior by officers at an early stage; and a perceived reluctance by senior managers to impose meaningful sanctions for misconduct.

The progress noted in the report includes police completing an initial round of audits - which provide the department with a means of checking how well it is doing in meeting the mandates - and reaching compliance with two more paragraphs in the consent decree.

Concerns

"As previously reported, the Police Practices Experts remain concerned about the VIPD's use of excessive force against individuals who are characterized by the VIPD as mentally or emotionally disturbed," Witzel's report states. "Every quarter, the Police Practices Experts learn about new uses of force involving mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals."

The report highlights an incident involving an emotionally disturbed man that reflects the ongoing concern, as well as what Witzel describes as "recurring deficiencies" in the investigation.

The experts identified a use of force incident where officers "drive stunned" an emotionally disturbed man while he was handcuffed, according to the report. Drive stunning involves holding a Taser against a person so that it causes pain, but without firing the projectiles or incapacitating the person.

"Even if a subject is resisting arrest, there are very few circumstances where it would be appropriate (and constitutionally permissible) for law enforcement officers to use a Taser on a subject while in handcuffs," the report states. "Based on the limited facts provided in the corresponding use of force investigation, it appears that the use of force was not justified. Despite previously raising our concerns about the VIPD's use of force against mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals (and acknowledgment by the VIPD that this is an ongoing concern), the VIPD does not appear to have made much progress in this regard."

The case, according to the report, also highlights several recurring deficiencies that the experts have seen in the department's other investigations of its officers.

Those deficiencies include that a supervisor never responded to the scene; that the supervisor reported that a "carotid restraint" was used on the man, but none of the officers reported using a "carotid restraint" on their use of force report forms; and that the electronic report generated by the Taser - relevant evidence - was not collected and evaluated.

A carotid restraint - also known as a chokehold - is intended to cause temporary and brief unconsciousness and is effected by an officer standing behind a subject and putting the officer's arm around the subject's neck, reducing blood flow to the brain by compressing the subject's carotid artery.

The report also notes that while reporting use of force has improved among officers, other factors relating to investigating those uses of force continue to be an issue, including timely completion of investigations, talking to all witnesses, and collecting all the evidence.

Early Intervention Program

Witzel writes that five years into the consent decree, the Police Department has made little progress implementing its Early Intervention Program, which Witzel describes as "a cornerstone" of the consent decree.

Designed to identify and address potentially problematic behavior at an early stage, the Early Intervention Program requires that a supervisor and commanding officer meet with an officer to determine whether corrective action is appropriate.

Witzel wrote that police have not demonstrated that this is being done consistently across the territory.

During the fourth quarter, police practice experts learned about an officer in the St. Thomas-St. John District who received 12 citizen complaints in the previous 12 months, accounting for about 60 percent of the citizen complaints in her unit.

"Notwithstanding those dramatic statistics, it does not appear that the officer's supervisor (or anyone else in the chain of command) ever attempted to intervene," the report states. "That fact demonstrates a complete failure of accountability by everyone involved. Unfortunately, that failure of accountability is not an isolated occurrence."

The report's executive summary also notes a reluctance by senior managers "to impose meaningful sanctions for misconduct, which further undermines accountability within the department."

As an example, it notes that during the fourth quarter, police practice experts reviewed the proceedings of a disciplinary hearing in which the charges against an officer were sustained, but the sanction was held in abeyance.

"To achieve substantial compliance and operate as a successful police department after the consent decree expires, the VIPD must embrace a culture of accountability - at all levels - and must overcome its current reluctance to hold personnel accountable for violations of department policies," the report states.

'Big step forward'

Witzel notes that the V.I. Police Department "took a big step forward" during the fourth quarter by completing an initial round of audits designed to assess compliance with various consent decree requirements.

Being able to show that the department can conduct self-audits to determine whether, for instance, officers consistently are applying policies to their real-life situations is one of the requirements of the consent decree.

The V.I. Police Department should have an independent audit unit that documents any instances where police did not comply with department policies, identifies the problems, the corrective action taken and any discipline administered, according to the report. The idea is to forward the information to the monitor, then correct any problems that the audits identify.

Although the report noted "substantial room for improvement" in the first round of audits police conducted, it also gave a big nod to the effort, saying the Police Department "demonstrated a good faith initial effort to conduct internal audits."

It urges police to conduct additional audits this quarter and forward results to the monitor.

Substantial compliance

The executive summary also notes that police have achieved substantial compliance with two more paragraphs in the consent decree.

One is the requirement that the investigation of each allegation against an officer be resolved with one of four findings: Unfounded, sustained, not sustained, and exonerated.

The other requires the purchase and use of a risk management system.

Those two provisions brings to 13 the number of paragraphs in the consent decree with which Police have reached compliance. There are many more.

"The VIPD has the opportunity in 2014 to achieve substantial compliance with a number of consent decree paragraphs," the report concludes. "The path forward requires a strong commitment from the top (especially with respect to accountability by supervisors), an active review and precise response by the working groups to the issues and recommendations raised in the OIM's Reports, and a robust audit function to confirm substantial compliance or direct the VIPD to the specific issues it needs to surmount to get there."

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