Police Report Progress on Use-of-Force Practices, Policies

Assistant Police Commissioner Jason Marsh and Deputy Police Chief Clayton Brown field questions at Tuesday town meeting on St. John. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

Police officials held town meetings this week to inform the public about its efforts to improve practices and policies for the Virgin Islands Police Department. Keeping Virgin Islanders informed as the department works to meet the terms of a federal consent is one of the steps directed by the District Court judge tasked with overseeing those efforts.

VIPD is one of 13 police agencies operating under consent decrees set by the U.S. Justice Department. Justice obtained a court order against VIPD in 2004 after an investigative report by the Virgin Islands Daily News uncovered incidents where police used excessive or unwarranted force in civilian encounters.

Five years have passed since former District Court Judge Curtis Gomez declared in 2018 that VIPD had taken major steps toward meeting its obligations under the consent decree. If the department could consistently adhere to the actions spelled out in the decree for two years, the judge said the court could declare the matter settled.

But then, a series of setbacks occurred: among them, new use of force allegations surfaced — including one involving the use of a taser; the head of a court-appointed team of monitors died, and the Covid-19 pandemic slowed the frequency of scheduled status hearings used to report progress and problems to the court.

At town meetings held Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday across the V.I., police officials led by Assistant Commissioner Mario Brooks introduced members of a new team of monitors keeping an eye on the process. New team leader Sydney Roberts told those gathered for Tuesday’s town meeting on St. John that the list of compliance steps set out in the decree was smaller. Ten of the action items were removed; 41 remained.

Seven of the 41 still had compliance steps that were not fully resolved, Roberts said. Assistant Police Commissioner Jason Marsh told the gathering of about a dozen people about recent improvements in police training and the use of body cameras.

After the meeting, Marsh detailed the areas where the seven outstanding action items were identified. “Use of force, management and supervision, and citizen complaints,” Marsh said.

The big complaint voiced by citizens at the Tuesday meeting involved recent armed robberies in the Cruz Bay business district, including one that took place on May 19, where a business owner was shot and wounded.

Store owners and managers who attended said they felt like they were being kept in the dark about developments related to that case and also an incident in February where robbers hit a jewelry store in Mongoose Junction.

Officials speaking at the meeting disclosed some of the details picked up since the Friday incident and said they would come back to the community with a better communications plan.

“I think we tried to answer the questions as best we could, but they wanted specific information that we weren’t able to give. But we have a plan, moving forward, for making the people feel they are getting a better response,” the assistant commissioner said.