Senators again fail to act on peace officer bill
Published: September 8, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - Sen. Sammuel Sanes was frustrated Friday when his committee lost its quorum and could not take action on the bill to give federal law enforcement officers a degree of peace officer status in the territory.
"If you're going to vote no for it, then vote," Sanes said. "We're here to do our job."
The Senate Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee had a quorum for most of the day, but just as the bill was heading toward a vote, committee members Usie Richards and Alvin Williams Jr. left the Senate floor and did not return for a quorum call.
Committee member Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly was at the hearing for a short time in the morning, but she said she had a flight scheduled to leave the territory for medical reasons and would not be there for the vote.
Committee member Ronald Russell was absent from the hearing Friday.
The remaining committee members, Senators Carlton Dowe, Celestino White Sr. and Sanes all support the bill and were ready to vote Friday. Known as the peace officer status bill, the controversial measure sponsored by Sanes has been before senators a number of times.
In April 2011, the original bill was tabled indefinitely in the Public Safety Committee.
Sanes tried to special order the bill to the Senate session agenda in June and again in August; both times the bill was sent to back to committee by a majority of senators.
At Friday's hearing, an amendment in the nature of a substitute was distributed that placed more limits on the peace officer status to be given to federal agents in the territory.
The proposed amendment - sponsored by Dowe, Sanes and White - would give the V.I. Police commissioner the authority to grant certain federal officers V.I. peace officer status. The commissioner also would have the power to revoke peace officer status from a federal agent.
As a condition, the V.I. Attorney General's Office would conduct a special orientation for federal agents to familiarize them with the territory's laws and culture.
The Police commissioner would have to meet at least twice a year with the head of the various federal agencies.
Under the proposed amendment, the federal agencies eligible for local peace officer status would be:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Drug Enforcement Administration.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
- U.S. Marshals Service.
- U.S. Coast Guard.
Under the proposed amendment, the federal officers chosen would be able to make arrests for violations of V.I. laws.
Any federal agent granted peace officer status would lose that status if they leave the territory for more than 180 consecutive days.
Under the proposed measure, any federal officer who has been granted V.I. peace officer status would be allowed to use force to defend himself or another person from harm, in making a lawful arrest or in the pursuit of someone fleeing who is believed to have committed a crime or poses a threat.
In testimony Friday, V.I. Police Commissioner Henry White Jr. and V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer said they support the bill and the proposed amendment.
Frazer pointed out that the federal government does not need permission to work in the territory, which is under the U.S. flag. Fears of a federal "take-over" if the bill is passed are unfounded, he said.
"The reason we are seeking passage of Bill No. 29-0347 is because we need their help," Frazer said. "We need to multiply our forces on the ground. We need sophisticated crime investigation equipment and other resources to help us investigate and solve crimes in our community. We need expertise and experience to stay ahead of the perpetrators of violent crimes who prey on our community.
"Our resources are limited. Our man-power is limited. Our experience is limited," he said. "The federal agencies are willing to help. Why are we having such a hard time accepting this help on reasonable conditions?"
St. Thomas-St. John Police Benevolent Association local 816 President Cpl. Elroy Raymo said it is about trust. He said that local police officers simply do not trust federal agents and that federal agents have a history of looking down on local law enforcement agencies. Raymo also said the system works just fine as it is, and the local government can work with the federal law enforcement agencies on special task forces or operations when warranted.
"Everyone should stay in their own lane," he said.
Frazer said the problem is that under the current V.I. laws, a federal agent is vulnerable to local criminal prosecution if he or she takes any police action in any matter outside of the narrow window of their own federal agency. For example, if a federal agent sees a burglary in progress, his hands are tied, and he cannot try to apprehend the suspect, Frazer said.
The issue of granting peace officer status to federal agents stemmed from an incident in 2008, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pulled its agents out of the territory 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.
In June, Government House said that the ATF once again has a presence in the USVI and has assigned two agents to the territory. Other federal law enforcement agencies have maintained a presence in the territory and continue to enforce federal law here.
Senators who expressed concerns about the bill said that their main problem is that the federal government does not seem to be doing an adequate job protecting the territory as it is.
"They have the jurisdiction. They are not dedicating the manpower and the resources here in the territory," non-committee member Sen. Terrence Nelson said.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.