Senator will attempt to bring up peace officer bill again
Published: August 21, 2012
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ST. CROIX - Some form of the previously rejected Peace Officer Status bill is expected to be added to Legislature agenda this week as senators meet for two days in full session.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the chairman of the Senate Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, sponsored the bill that was tabled indefinitely in April 2011. He said Monday that he is planning to try to special order the bill to have it added at the end of the list of items to be considered during the two days of formal meetings and that he hopes his colleagues support it.
"More than ever before, after the events of this past weekend and seeing four officers shot in the past few months, it is clear that we need this," Sanes said.
After a weekend that saw two murders and the shooting of St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell and V.I. Police Officer Elsworth Jones, Gov. John deJongh Jr. made a renewed call for giving federal agents peace officer status in the Virgin Islands.
Sanes said the bill is important to him as he sees a community that is losing an entire generation of young black and Hispanic men to gun violence and an attitude of lawlessness.
"Some people have been very reluctant to embrace the bill because they think the federal agencies will come with their own rules and regulations," Sanes said. "Guess what, gangs don't have rules or regulations, and they are here."
Sanes said he is hoping for an open dialogue and debate that is compelling enough to garner the eight votes needed to pass the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Celestino White Sr. initially resurrected the issue after two Police officers were shot May 26 when they approached a group of men in Contant on St. Thomas.
White said Monday that he is in support of the concept of giving the peace officer status, but he is not in support of giving a blanket authority to all federal agencies or agents.
"The devil is in the details," he said.
Noting his 23 years of police service, White said he knows police operations and how valuable assistance from federal agents is in these crucial times. He said he has suggested the bill specifically say that only specific agents of specific agencies be allowed peace officer status while they are on temporary assignment in the territory.
"I want it to be clear that the agents would be given this special temporary duty and be placed under the direct command of the police commissioner," he said.
White said he maintains confidence in the abilities of the local force but said the degrees to which perpetrators are being armed, coupled with their aggressiveness, has to be neutralized with more boots on the ground and added technology by way of some federal agencies.
Mixed feelings exist within the Senate majority caucus and some members are hesitant, White said.
"It is a split situation right now, but I believe the vote would be very, very close," he said.
The Police and Justice departments have thrown their support behind the bill.
Police Commissioner Henry White Jr. has supported the efforts and said giving peace officer status to federal agents brings the opportunity to get the full benefits of some federal investigating agencies and their expertise in fighting gun violence.
The entire Caribbean is inundated with gangs and the rising gun violence that comes along with it, he said. As a United States territory with extremely porous borders, the Virgin Islands is at a disadvantage, according to White.
The combined efforts of local and federal law enforcement agencies can make a big impact on the gang culture, he said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pulled its agents from the Virgin Islands in 2008, following the arrest of ATF agent William Clark. Clark admitted shooting and killing a neighbor during an altercation at Mahogany Run on St. Thomas. Clark was off-duty at the time of the shooting.
In the weeks after the ATF's pullout became public in July of 2009, acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and Government House released statements suggesting that the return of ATF agents hinged on granting them some level of local peace officer status.
Other federal law enforcement agencies have maintained their presence in the territory and continue to enforce federal law here.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email email@example.com.