Judge amends VIPD consent decree

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A federal judge has amended a consent decree after the V.I. Police Department repeatedly failed to meet deadlines in the existing document.

In his orders, U.S. District Judge Curtis Gomez wrote that "words and promises are not enough" and set up a different way of doing things for police to reach compliance.

The judge ordered an action plan that had provided intermediate steps and deadlines - which police missed anyway - to be stricken from the consent decree. The new way of doing things involves the V.I. Police Department choosing areas in which it will reach compliance with the consent decree each quarter, then being held accountable for doing that.

Gomez warned that failure is not an option.

"The failure of the Virgin Islands to achieve quarterly goals accepted by the court may result in a finding of contempt," Gomez wrote in the orders, which he issued last week.

Missed deadlines

The consent decree was designed to provoke changes within the V.I. Police Department to fix what federal civil rights lawyers contend was the 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.

After a long investigation, the U.S. Justice Department brought the case that led to the consent decree in 2008.

In March 2009, Gomez signed off on the consent decree, which contains a lot of orders aimed at fixing the problems. Originally, the territory was supposed to meet the mandates of the consent decree within three years, then maintain compliance for two years before the consent decree terminated.

"It has since been amended five times, by the Court's count," Gomez wrote in his latest orders. "Each amendment was in response to a motion by one or both parties as a result of the Virgin Islands being unable to comply with the deadlines for substantial compliance with some or all sections of the consent decree that called for improvement."

Each time, the judge wrote, the territory and the U.S. Justice Department told the court that changes in the Police Department's leadership had resulted in "a renewed commitment to the consent decree."

The 'action plan'

At one point, the "action plan" was adopted in an attempt to help the territory achieve compliance. That action plan set Oct. 31, 2013, as the new overarching deadline by which the territory was to achieve substantial compliance with the consent decree.

"That date has long since passed," Gomez wrote, noting that the territory still is not in compliance with several sections of the consent decree.

On Oct. 1, 2013, the territory asked to change the consent decree, with new deadlines. At a hearing the following month, both the territory and the U.S. Justice Department told the court the new proposed deadlines were reasonable, the judge wrote.

"Remarkably, before the court could rule on the motion, the Virgin Islands failed to meet the deadlines that it had proposed in the Oct. 1, 2013 motion," Gomez wrote.

The parties then proposed shifting the missed deadlines even further into the future, according to Gomez.

In February, there was another hearing, during which the parties presented evidence about efforts to comply with the consent decree's provisions and argued that the newly proposed deadlines were achievable, according to Gomez. They also argued that the territory was closer to compliance than it had been and that changes within leadership in the Police Department had resulted in a renewed commitment to compliance.

More than words

The judge wrote that each time a new police commissioner comes on board, the court receives assurances that the person is "strongly committed to the implementation of the consent decree and that this renewed commitment would push the Virgin islands into compliance."

"However, if history is any indication, the leadership's expressed desire to achieve compliance - not only for compliance's sake, but in order to improve the Virgin Islands Police Department so that it could effectively serve the community it is supposed to protect - will simply not, after six years and five amendments, be enough," he wrote.

So, according to the order, Gomez suggested that the parties consider finding "meaningful and achievable quarterly goals."

Quarterly goals

The parties agreed to submit quarterly proposed goals and agreed to having a court hearing each quarter on the status of compliance with that quarter's goals, according to the order.

On March 7, the V.I. filed a notice of its goals for the quarter that ends May 27, indicating police would achieve substantial compliance in the areas of citizen complaint processes and training.

In the order, Gomez struck the Action Plan from the consent decree and adopted the agreement by the parties to submit to the court proposed quarterly goals and accomplish any goals the court accepts by the quarter's end.

Gomez also changed the consent decree to include these provisions:

- Every quarter, the V.I. Police Department select at least two subject areas of the consent decree in which the department believes it can reach compliance. Those chosen areas will be considered the Police Department's "quarterly goals," and must be reviewed and accepted by the court.

Once the court has accepted them, the territory will be obligated to complete the goals by the end of the quarter.

- The quarters are to end on the third Friday of May, August, November and February. The proposed goals must be submitted to the court no later than 10 weeks before the end of the quarter.

- By the Monday after the end of each quarter, each party is to file a report on the progress made toward achieving the quarterly goals.

- An evidentiary hearing is to be held on the fourth Thursday of May, August, November and February immediately after each respective quarter.

- Failure by the territory to achieve quarterly goals accepted by the court may result in a finding of contempt.

The timeline, though, for the current quarter is slightly different.

With the order, the judge accepted the quarterly goals from the territory to be completed May 27 and set an evidentiary hearing for June.

Other changes

The new way of doing things comes at a point when the law firm that is contracted to provide the services of an independent monitoring team - Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson - has given notice it intends to terminate its contract with the V.I. Police Department. The independent monitor is tasked with evaluating the police department's progress and reporting to the court and public on it.

In an April letter from attorney Steven Witzel, who acts as independent monitor, the law firm notified the parties that the report it expects to publish later this month - which covers the first quarter of 2014 - will be its last.

After the contract was signed in December 2009, the law firm assembled a team of attorneys and police practice experts to act as a monitoring team.

Through that team, the firm has issued 16 quarterly reports.

"While a significant amount of work remains, the VIPD has made commendable progress over the past four-plus years," Witzel's letter states.

The letter suggests the monitorship will now move to the police practice experts who have been part of the monitoring team for years.

"In light of the VIPD's progress and the next phase of its compliance efforts, and after extensive consultations with the government, the VIPD, and the DOJ, we believe that now is an appropriate time for the monitorship to pass from Fried Frank to the Police Practices Experts, Charles Gruber, Ann Marie Doherty and Robert Stewart," Witzel writes. Gruber, Doherty and Stewart have been visiting the territory for more than four years as police practice experts on the monitoring team.

"The VIPD will continue to benefit from their invaluable experience in policing at this critical juncture," the letter says, later noting that "We are confident that the VIPD is in good hands with the Police Practices Experts overseeing the final push towards substantial compliance with the Consent Decree."

It was not clear Monday night whether the territory already has entered into a contract with the police practice experts to act as the independent monitor or how it intends to proceed.

The consent decree requires the services of an independent monitor.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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