Judge looks to California case for lessons to spur action on V.I. Police consent decree

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ST. THOMAS - After studying a case in California, District Judge Curtis Gomez is considering the creation of a new position to keep the V.I. Police Department in line with the federal requirements of a five-year-old consent decree.

Gomez listened Tuesday to the arguments of the U.S. Justice Department and the V.I. Police Department regarding the appointment of a compliance director to oversee all consent decree-related matters until the mandates of the decree are met and it is lifted.

The territorial government's attorney, Carol Thomas-Jacobs, expressed the police department's overall opposition to the appointment.

The federal government's attorney, Marina Mazor, called as witnesses police practices experts Ann Marie Doherty and Robert Stewart, both of whom testified that the department likely does not yet need a compliance director.

"I'm just wondering if someone with teeth is missing," Gomez said in court during Tuesday's evidentiary hearing.

The police already have an in-house official who oversees consent decree matters, but given that the department has never met the deadlines that the U.S. Justice Department has put into place, Gomez said that he may have to consider taking the steps taken in the case of the Justice Department's consent decree with the Oakland Police Department in California.

"Words and promises are not enough," Gomez said.

Oakland Police

The Oakland Police Department has been under a consent decree for several years beyond what federal authorities expected would be necessary, similar to the consent decree which the V.I. Police Department is under.

In fact, in 2012, nine years into the Oakland Police Department's failure to comply with orders issued in its 2003 consent decree, District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered that a compliance director oversee that department's consent decree-related matters.

A compliance director, according to a court order filed in the U.S. District Court for the northern district of California, was the alternative to appointing a receiver.

While a consent decree is an order for an agency to follow a set of stipulations, under receivership, the local agency would have to relinquish all control to a court-appointed administrator. The receiver directs the receivership until it no longer is deemed necessary.

The compliance director

In the case of the Oakland Police Department, the compliance director - who had "receiver-like powers," according to testimony during Tuesday's hearing - began oversight in February 2013.

Just two weeks ago, however, Henderson ordered the termination of the director by March 10, according to a court order filed in the U.S. District Court for the northern district of California.

"This arrangement has proven to be unnecessarily duplicative and has been less efficient and more expensive than the court contemplated," the California order stated.

Instead of paying a compliance director $250,000 annually in the Oakland case, the federal government will instead pay a court-appointed monitor an extra $150,000 to absorb the directive authority and responsibility of the compliance director.

Oversight for V.I.?

During Tuesday's evidentiary hearing, Gomez raised the issue of whether a compliance director - which Gomez referred to as a single entity - would help steer the V.I. Police Department's efforts toward compliance with its consent decree and federal mandates.

V.I. Police officials testified that they did not feel the department requires a compliance director at this stage, as it is making ample progress and expects that the department will be able to meet a proposed October 2015 compliance deadline.

"I know we're going to have a better department at the end of this consent decree, but it's not going to happen overnight," Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr. said.

Querrard said that, in large part, the reason the department is struggling to meet the requirements of the consent decree is because the department lacks the number of supervisors that it needs to enforce new policies and practices. The department will conduct testing for supervisory roles focused on compliance - including those of lieutenant, captain and sergeant - in April and May, Querrard said.

"It's a double-edged sword," Querrard told Gomez, after the judge implied that a compliance director might take some of the workload off of the current supervisors.

'Scattershot approach'

With or without a compliance director, Querrard said supervisors still would be required to do the same amount of work.

Additionally, some of the supervisors said Oakland's police department had the advantage of being a contingent organization, whereas the territory department is spread over three separate islands.

At times, this can make data collection and analysis difficult, V.I. Police officials said.

Gomez took into account all of the testimony Tuesday, noting he would make a decision on the proposed October 2015 compliance deadline, which originally was proposed in November but still requires Gomez's approval.

The judge did not say when he would issue his decision.

Gomez did not allow attorneys to ask further about the possibility of putting a compliance director into place, stating they could address that later, if need be.

Gomez warned that if the department's "scattershot approach" at meeting the demands of the federal consent decree continue, he will consider taking a new approach to the situation himself.

Consent decree history

The consent decree came about after the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the V.I. Police Department's use of force in March 2004 after The Daily News' publication of "Deadly Force," a 44-page investigative report detailing the Police Department's history of using excessive force and failing to investigate or prosecute the officers involved.

The consent decree has required sweeping changes of the department after the decree settled a lawsuit that the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division filed in 2008.

The lawsuit contended that the V.I. Police Department was violating citizens' civil rights by using excessive force and that the department was tolerating the violations by not adequately training, supervising, investigating and disciplining its officers.

The department has said that it is trying to meet the 33 pages of required changes by following an action plan, though the plan has been revised a number of times, primarily to push back deadlines that have been set continuously since 2009.

Members of the monitoring team from the Office of the Independent Monitor that oversee the department's efforts toward meeting the consent decree agreed that the department is well ahead of where it was a year and a half ago, but they said the department still has a long way to go.

The court-appointed monitors visit the territory several times a year, meeting with, interviewing and observing the officers and everyday operations of the department.

The department has been under the guidance of five different commissioners since the consent decree was put into place.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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