Peace officer bill to get another hearing today
Published: September 17, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - Sen. Sammuel Sanes said he plans to try again today to convince at least seven of his colleagues that federal law enforcement officers should have local peace officer status.
In what would be at least the fifth attempt to bring such a bill to the Senate floor, Sanes is hoping testimony on the issue Sept. 7 in his Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee helped allay some senators' concerns about the bill.
"Last week it was properly vetted in my committee," Sanes said on Thursday. "We've exhausted all the questions and concerns."
In so doing, the bill has changed form dramatically since its inception. The most recent version, an amendment in the form of a substitute for the original bill, would grant the V.I. Police Commissioner the authority to give federal officers standing as V.I. Police officers following procedures set forth in written agreements between the V.I. Attorney General's Office, the Police commissioner and the appropriate federal agency.
The participating agencies would be the FBI; Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; U.S. Marshals Service; and U.S. Coast Guard.
"It's very much more comprehensive," Sanes said. "It's not going to be a carte blanche bill. Only certain individuals get it for a certain amount of time, and the commissioner at any time can revoke it."
The local commissions would last a maximum of one year and would grant the officers the authority to enforce V.I. laws and make arrests for violations of V.I. laws.
The bill also would allow the locally commissioned federal officers to "use any force which the officer reasonably believes to be necessary to defend himself or another person from bodily harm."
Sanes pointed out the new bill requires cultural sensitivity training for any officers accepting local commissions.
"One of the emphases stated in the past has been supposedly the disrespect of federal to local police officers," Sanes said.
Still, the bill did not make it through Sanes' committee because committee members Usie Richards and Alvin Williams Jr. walked off the Senate floor, depriving the committee of a quorum, before Sanes called for a vote.
"It is a tactic that is used, and unfortunately it worked on Friday," Sanes said. "For the record, these two individuals who walked away, I still respect them as senators. I'm just disillusioned they did not cast a vote."
Richards did not return a call for this story. Williams was one of a number of senators contacted who refused to voice a clear position on the bill as it appeared in Sanes' committee.
"During that time, I had to step out immediately to take care of a pressing issue, and the vote came when I was not there," Williams said. "I will be there on Monday and, you know, whatever comes before us, I have to make sure it's something that is palatable to this community."
When asked about his position on the bill, Sen. Craig Barshinger said he still was deciding.
"I'm not in favor of opening our arms to the feds just because they're the feds," he said.
Barshinger quickly brought up the civil trial last week of ATF agent William Clark, who admitted to shooting and killing a man in 2008 in the Mahogany Run condominium complex. A judge dismissed criminal charges against Clark in 2010, and a jury in District Court last week found that Clark did not use excessive force in the shooting. But the case has been a flashpoint for mistrust between V.I. citizens and federal and local police.
"I don't understand this legislation," Barshinger said. "I want to know what it is they want. If this bill is about getting William Clark off easier, then I'm going to vote no."
Sen. Terrence Nelson offered more straightforward opposition.
"Sen. Sanes needs to leave it alone," he said.
Nelson said until he sees federal law enforcement agencies being more active in the roles they already have, he does not think it is a good idea to expand their officers' jurisdiction.
"In my view, the federal government has jurisdiction over certain responsibilities, but they've yet to dedicate adequate manpower and resources, and that is what we really need to see," Nelson said.
The full session of the 29th Legislature meets for two days on St. Thomas, beginning today at 10 a.m.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.