Monitors: Even with another extension, VIPD must work harder to meet federal consent decree deadline


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Even if a judge approves extending by two years a missed deadline for the V.I. Police Department to make reforms, police will need to work harder to improve than they have been if they want to meet the proposed new timeline, experts said.

"Even if the court agrees to extend the compliance deadline, the VIPD must overcome substantial obstacles, devote additional resources and hold its personnel (at all levels) accountable in order to make a substantial compliance deadline of October 31, 2015 realistic," independent monitors William Johnson and Steven Witzel wrote in a recently released report.

Witzel and Johnson and a team of police practice experts are monitoring the V.I. Police Department's efforts at complying with a federal consent decree. Their latest report, released in December, covers the period from July through September.

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.

Lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division also contend that the Police Department was 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.

The U.S. Justice Department sued the territory in December 2008 over the problems, and the consent decree - signed in March 2009 - settled that lawsuit by forcing the territory to remedy the situation.

Although the territory agreed to make the required improvements, it has repeatedly missed all the deadlines in the case. Court orders were eventually necessary to push deadlines back, some 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 mandates - passed on Oct. 31. Police have not yet reached compliance.

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

The report

In their latest report, monitors lauded the Police Department's progress in putting together policies and training on them - but pointed to several major steps police must now take to move forward with the reforms and reach compliance with the consent decree.

To proceed, police must prove that they know the policies and consistently apply them in their everyday routines.

"The VIPD has made great strides finalizing policies and providing corresponding training (Phase 1 and 2 Compliance)," the report states. "However, the Department has generally been unable to demonstrate that VIPD personnel are consistently applying those policies and training in their policing (Phase 3 Compliance)."

The report says that the Police Department needs to improve its internal auditing capacity so it can do its own checking, monitoring and keeping track of how well it is complying with the consent decree.

The internal audits police are supposed to be doing should document instances where police have not complied with the policies, including identifying problems or mistakes; the corrective action taken; and any discipline or other action taken against officers who have not complied with the policies, according to the report.

The Police Department has had an audit unit in name only for more than a year - but only approved its audit policy during the third quarter of 2013, according to the report.

The monitors also point out that every quarterly report they produce includes recommendations to help the Police Department move toward complying with the consent decree or to help strengthen the department.

However, Johnson and Witzel say, police have done little to implement the suggestions - or even respond to them.

As an example, they note that they have repeatedly in the quarterly reports recommended that the police Training Division work with chiefs, other command staff and the Internal Affairs Bureau to ensure that training addresses problems that are identified in the field.

Police, though, have not demonstrated that this is being done, according to monitors.

Another major issue Witzel and Johnson point out in the report's executive summary is "varying levels of compliance with the Consent Decree across the Districts."

"We recognize the challenges associated with managing a police department based on three islands," the report states. "However, that is no excuse for the VIPD's uneven delivery of police service."

The report does not at that point identify which islands or district are doing better and which are doing worse.

Monitors say that the Police Department should hold its personnel - regardless of where they are stationed - "to the same high standards." The report also urges leadership to continue to emphasize that it is a single police department with a single organizational mission.

Tracking

Police also need to do a better job of investigating citizen complaints and officers' use of force, according to the report.

It notes that the department has allowed several investigations into police-involved shootings - including those with fatalities - "to linger incomplete for years."

According to V.I. Police Department policy, the Internal Affairs Bureau should complete the investigation within 50 days and criminal investigators should complete it within 120 days.

"The Department's failure in this regard is a critical deficiency that should be addressed immediately," the report states.

It goes on to say that a new appendix has been added to the report, which will provide a status update on:

- A number of serious use of force, officer misconduct and citizen complaint investigations, and

- Investigations with no dispositions.

The monitors agreed, after discussion with the parties, to include this information in the quarterly reports going forward "to provide more visibility into the department's ongoing investigations."

The appendix comprises a heading of "Case Tracking List," and for each case, includes a case number, the district where the incident or allegation occurred, and a summary of the allegations.

At this point, there is no column for disposition, and it was not clear how many of the cases may have been closed already.

The listing includes 17 cases for the St. Croix District and 44 cases for the St. Thomas-St. John District.

Five of the 17 St. Croix cases are noted as "incomplete case" in the "Summary of Allegations" section. None of the 44 St. Thomas cases are noted as "incomplete."

Included in the listing are cases from 2009 to 2013.

Even though no names are included in the listing, some of the cases are very high profile and identifiable by their circumstances, including several where police shot someone and some where the person died. The list also includes several where officers are accused of crimes.

"The OIM will monitor these cases to evaluate whether the investigations complied with the Department's policies and generally accepted police practices," the report states. "In future reports, the OIM will provide further status updates about these investigations, and will add new cases as appropriate."

OIM stands for Office of the Independent Monitor, and includes Johnson and Witzel and their team of police practice experts.

The next report will cover the last quarter of 2013.

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

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