Local Law Leader Says V.I. Voices Needed in Dialogue on Police Brutality

Nesha Christian-Hendrickson, president of the V.I. Bar Association. (Photo from Facebook)
Nesha Christian-Hendrickson, president of the V.I. Bar Association. (Photo from Facebook)

The head of the Virgin Islands Bar Association called on the territory’s legal community to speak out against police brutality resulting in the death of unarmed civilians on the U.S. mainland.

Bar Association President Nesha Christian-Hendrickson recently issued a statement in light of the global protests sparked by the May 25 death of a Texas man at the hands of police in Minnesota.

In her statement, Hendrickson said Virgin Islands voices should not be left out of the conversation on police brutality. Weeks of protests in U.S. cities and cities abroad followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protests began anew after the June 12 shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by police in Atlanta.

An autopsy found Brooks was shot twice in the back while running from the scene of a police confrontation. The officer who fired the fatal shots and the Minneapolis officer who pinned Floyd to the ground with a knee to the neck have both been arrested and charged with murder.

Both victims were black. Both of the accused officers are white.

“We must condemn these acts of violence and look to find a path forward to address how we, as lawyers, community members and human beings can put forth the structural and systemic changes needed in American society. We cannot be silent. The mistreatment of anyone based on race should not be tolerated under any circumstances,” the bar association president said.

Hendrickson asked association members to make personal commitments to ensuring equal justice for all.

Although racially charged confrontations are rare in the Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands Police Department has been the subject of a federal use-of-force consent decree for more than 10 years. Under direction of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, a gradual process has resulted in creation of a formal use of force. In 2018, a federal judge declared the VIPD had achieved substantial compliance with the new policy.

One year later, a court-appointed monitor told the court compliance had slipped in sections of the policy. Police officials say they’re working on those deficiencies, under direction of the court.

The scheduled compliance hearing, set for May 28, was cancelled without a new date being set.

On June 22, officials representing the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the V.I. Justice Department filed status reports on the progress made since the last hearing.

Both parties referenced their concerns about use of force incidents resulting in death of civilians. The independent monitoring team, working with federal authorities, proposed specific revisions addressing the use of chokeholds by police. They also recommended a review of policies on use of electronic stun guns by police.

Local justice officials, in their June 22 status report, stated that “VIPD does not teach chokeholds or neck restraints to personnel.” Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs also told the court the departments’ use-of-force lesson plans were reviewed and approved during the most recent reporting period.

The report included a direct reference to the George Floyd incident in Minnesota.

“Training cadres and certified defensive tactics instructors have reviewed the Lessons for Defensive Tactics to ensure that no modifications are required, based on a recent use of force where a law enforcement officer applied his knee to a male’s neck and caused his death,” the V.I. Justice status report said.