Report: V.I. Police beat mentally disabled man in wheelchair
Published: August 20, 2013
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The latest report by independent monitors tracking the V.I. Police Department's efforts to meet a consent decree found some progress - although the report also notes problems, including an incident in which police used force against a mentally disturbed man in a wheelchair.
Police use of force is at the heart of the consent decree, which settled a 2008 lawsuit the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division filed contending that the Police Department had a pattern and practice of violating residents' civil rights by using excessive force. The lawsuit also claimed 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 guide and monitor their actions.
The consent decree forces the territory to fix the problems by implementing reforms.
The report, released earlier this month by independent monitors William Johnson and Steven Witzel, covers the period from January to March.
In the report, the monitors note that for the first time since a judge signed off on the consent decree in March 2009, police have achieved full compliance with one of its substantive provisions: A requirement to develop and implement a program to inform people that they can file complaints regarding the performance of any police officer.
Under the consent decree, that program is to include distribution of complaint forms, fact sheets, informational posters and public service announcements that describe the citizen complaint process.
While it is only one of a myriad of mandates in the 33-page consent decree, it is the first "substantive" one with which monitors say police have fully complied.
The other provisions with which police have complied - non-substantive provisions - include retaining the independent monitors, hiring a compliance coordinator for the department and submitting written reports to the monitors, according to the report.
The monitors note that police have issued policies related to the citizen complaint process, have provided training on the policies and have implemented a program to inform people about the citizen complaint and compliment process.
To sustain compliance, police will need to continue to provide officers with additional training on the complaint process and then conduct and document periodic audits to ensure police personnel are complying with the policy, according to the monitors.
Police also need to develop a way to identify personnel who continually fail to demonstrate knowledge of the policy, and provide remedial training or discipline, the monitors said.
Use of force
As they evaluate the department's efforts toward compliance, police practice experts who are part of the independent monitoring team review the department's completed use of force investigation files.
One of the files that they reviewed in the first quarter highlights what monitors describe in the most recent report as "deficiencies relating to the department's force practices" - in an incident in which police used a baton to strike a mentally disturbed man in a wheelchair who would not put down a plastic soda bottle when they ordered him to.
"The subject did not pose a physical threat to the responding officers or anyone else. Nevertheless, one of the responding officers struck the subject with a baton," the report states. "As discussed below, the responding officers did not utilize de-escalation techniques; the use of force was excessive; the responding officers did not report the use of force on a timely basis; and the VIPD did not conduct an appropriate investigation into the use of force."
According to the report, the incident happened in September 2012, but the report does not specify on which island it occurred.
The report says that the use of force occurred when two officers responded to an assisted living facility and encountered the mentally disturbed man in a wheelchair, reportedly holding a plastic bottle of soda.
Johnson and Witzel point out that the forms the officers used to report their use of force "did not articulate any threat to the officers or anyone else and did not disclose the highly relevant fact that the subject was in a wheelchair."
"Nevertheless, at least one of the responding officers struck the subject with a baton," the report states.
It goes on to note that the V.I. Police Department's Use of Force Policy states that officers must "use only the minimum amount of force necessary and reasonable to control a situation" and that "the degree of force should be in direct relationship to the amount of resistance exerted, or the immediate threat to the officers or others."
"In this case, the use of a baton was likely excessive and in violation of the Use of Force Policy," the report states.
The report also notes that although the policy requires officers to immediately report uses of force, that is not what happened in this case.
One officer filed the paperwork reporting the use of force two days later, while the other filed the paperwork two weeks later, according to the report.
The monitors also said that it appears from the file that the officers only completed the required paperwork at all "because their use of force against the subject was discovered by other VIPD personnel."
A resident notified the Internal Affairs Bureau, which then launched an investigation, the report said.
The independent monitors also said the Police Department's handling of the investigation highlights "a number of problems with the department's disciplinary procedures and practices."
The report notes that the V.I. Police Department should have referred the investigation to the V.I. Attorney General's Office for possible criminal prosecution.
"The investigation file contained a police report (from an uninvolved officer) that identified the two officers who were involved in the incident as suspects in a third-degree assault," the report states.
The report said there is no indication that police referred the investigation to the Attorney General's Office or separately conducted a criminal investigation.
The independent monitors also said that in light of the allegations, the disciplinary sanctions imposed were "too lenient."
For instance, when the officer who hit the man with a baton was charged with violating several Police Department policies, he decided to retire and the Police Department took no further action, according to the report.
However, the monitors argue that the Police Department had a responsibility to pursue and adjudicate the charges.
"Consequently, upon retirement, the officer's record will presumably indicate that he retired in good standing (meaning, among other things, that he will be able to seek future employment as a peace officer in the Virgin Islands or elsewhere in the United States), even though officers who refuse to cooperate in departmental investigations typically must surrender their peace officer certifications," the report says.
Monitors also said that the Police Commissioner at the time should have reviewed the investigation, although there was no indication in the file that he did so.
Finally, monitors suggest that the completed investigation should have identified any underlying problems or training needs stemming from the use of force.
"At a minimum, the use of force underscores the need for greater training on de-escalation techniques," the report says. "Had the involved officers employed such techniques, they may not have resorted to using force."
The report contains 116 pages, going over a variety of findings particular to each provision of the consent decree in fine detail.
Notably, the monitors have begun breaking provisions down into a three-phase approach, starting with developing the policy to address the issue; training on the policy and executing it; and the consistent application of the policy.
The monitors' evaluations of a number of the 81 substantive provisions in the consent decree now show that police have satisfied the first phase or the first two phases, but still need to satisfy the third phase by consistently applying the policy.
As the report concludes, monitors stress the need for the Police Department to put in place an audit process by which the department can evaluate whether its officers are complying with the new policies.
"As we have previously reported, a robust auditing function is essential to the department's ability to ensure that policies are implemented, that personnel understand and comply with department policies, and that remedial training or other required action is taken to ensure that VIPD personnel are equipped to carry out department policies and procedures in their daily policing activities," the report states.
It also notes that the department still needs to work on police use, reporting and investigation of force.
"The department should conduct further training to emphasize the requirements of its revised use of force policies, which lie at the heart of the consent decree," the report states.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email email@example.com.