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Police Work Towards Consent Decree Compliance Despite Death Of Monitor

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Police continue to work towards consent decree compliance amid leadership changes at the department, and the death of court-appointed Independent Monitor Charles Gruber.

Since the filing of the last report with the court, Commissioner Trevor Velinor has retired, and Governor Albert Bryan has nominated Ray Martinez as the new commissioner of police, Assistant Virgin Islands Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs wrote in a monthly report filed July 21 in U.S. District Court.

Thomas-Jacobs also wrote that Chennelle Skepple, former director of Internal Affairs and chair of the Use of Force Work Group, resigned from the Virgin Islands Police Department effective yesterday. Vivianne Newton, former deputy chief of St. John, was appointed to acting director of Internal Affairs five days earlier.

Martinez has since announced that Newton is the permanent appointee to replace Skepple, and that Lt. Clayton Brown would replace Newton as St. John deputy chief of police.

Skepple “was a significant contributor to VIPD’s efforts to achieve and maintain compliance with the consent decree. Indeed, she testified before the court at numerous quarterly hearings regarding use-of-force issues,” according to a report filed by U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel Jeffrey Murray.

Internal Affairs plays a critical role in ensuring that officers comply with V.I. Police Department policy and ultimately the consent decree.

“It is important that a highly-qualified person be selected quickly to fill the position of director in order for VIPD to be able to continue improving its compliance with the decree,” Murray said.

Consent decree

The consent decree came about after the U.S. Justice Department sued the V.I. government in 2008, contending the V.I. Police Department was violating civil rights by using excessive force on citizens — and that misconduct was not being properly investigated or corrected.

The consent decree settled that lawsuit in 2009 by forcing the Virgin Islands to remedy the situation and federal oversight was originally supposed to last five years. But the department repeatedly missed deadlines to comply, and the consent decree has been amended eight times.

The Police Department reached “substantial compliance” with the 12-year-old consent decree in December 2018, but compliance has lapsed in certain areas in the two years since, according to reports and testimony from court-appointed independent monitors.

Gruber’s work praised

The team of law enforcement experts had been led by Gruber since 2014, and he had been working on the matter since 2009 as a police practices expert for the prior independent monitor.

Gruber informed U.S. District Court Judge Robert Molloy, who is overseeing the consent decree, he would be withdrawing from the monitoring team in March.

“Tragically, Chief Gruber passed away thereafter,” Molloy wrote in an order filed May 19. “Chief Gruber’s unparalleled devotion, discernment, and experience — including over 50 years of police and law enforcement experience; service as Chief of Police for the cities of Quincy, Illinois; Shreveport, Louisiana; Elgin, Illinois; and South Barrington, Illinois; and work as a police practices expert for the Department of Justice since 2002 — have been instrumental in promoting constitutional police practices within the VIPD. The Court expresses its sincere gratitude for Chief Gruber’s years of dedicated and invaluable service in this matter and thanks his family for his tireless and steadfast efforts.”

Molloy appointed Chet Epperson, a former police chief in Illinois and principal of AGR Police Practice Group, LLC, to serve as interim independent monitor until a new monitor is selected. Epperson has been working on the monitoring team for more than five years.

The monitoring team will continue to be comprised of the same individuals who have been working on the consent decree since 2014, “namely Retired U.S. Customs Service Resident Agent in Charge Leon A. Casey, Sr.; Retired Boston Police Department Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty; Retired International Association of Chiefs of Police Director Jerome A. Needle; and Retired Montgomery County Police Department Lieutenant Palmer D. Wilson,” Molloy wrote.

New monitor selection

The V.I. government agreed the consent decree requires selection of a new independent monitor, “however, the VIPD argues that interim monitoring is not warranted given the current status of VIPD’s compliance with the Consent Decree. As such, the VIPD proposes that the VIPD engage in self-monitoring during the period of time necessary for the process of selecting a new Independent Monitor,” Molloy wrote.

The judge said the department is not ready to be without independent oversight — even on a temporary basis.

“Given the age of this matter and the VIPD’s recent struggles with maintaining substantial compliance with the Consent Decree, the Court finds that a pause in independent monitoring, especially in favor of self-monitoring, would be inappropriate here,” he wrote.

The judge noted that the “VIPD has been subject to the Consent Decree in this matter for over twelve years,” adding that “after many years of little to no progress toward compliance, the Court first found the VIPD to have obtained substantial compliance with the Consent Decree approximately two and a half years ago — almost ten years after the Court entered the Consent Decree in this matter.”

“Thereafter, the VIPD was to maintain substantial compliance for a period of two years. The VIPD failed to do so. Indeed, the VIPD has been troubled with numerous compliance issues during this period, including issues arising with respect to several recent serious uses of force,” the judge found.

In February Molloy said the purpose of the consent decree is not just to stop bad behavior by officers, but to ensure “that VIPD has a methodology in place that these reoccurring issues aren’t going to happen again.”

There are still serious uses of excessive force that need to be addressed, according to the monitors, who have detailed a number of troubling incidents involving some of the department’s highest-ranking officers over the last two years.

Since then, the independent monitoring team, or IMT, has documented several other incidents in detailed “Special Reports,” which involved the use of Tasers, firearms and physical restraint methods to subdue citizens.

“The serious question remains, ‘If the IMT had not been monitoring and reporting to the court, would the unconstitutional conduct described in these special reports have ever been reported or would the VIPD have reverted to previous unconstitutional behavior?’” according to a February IMT report. “They suggest that the VIPD does not have the leaders and supervisors in positions of authority who are directing, guiding and holding police personnel accountable for CD provisions and constitutional policing practices.”

The next consent decree hearing is scheduled for August 27.

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