As one of its priorities in the final months before dissolution, the House of Assembly is working to tackle legislation to modernise police operations. On Feb. 3, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley introduced the Police Act, 2023, which is based on a bill proposed in 2019. (File photo: PROVIDED)

Years of efforts to reform the legislation governing the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force — including by broadening officers’ powers to make arrests without warrants and to collect physical evidence from detained people — have been unsuccessful.

But the House of Assembly is making another push.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley introduced the Police Act, 2023 in the HOA on Feb. 2, after members voted in favour of adding it to the order paper.

The bill is largely identical to one that was introduced in 2019, which had been debated multiple times but never passed.

Dr. Wheatley encouraged the public to review the new act and provide feedback.

“Wide-ranging public consultation was done,” he said of the proposed changes. “I went around with the police officers, and we had meetings on every island in various communities, and we had good feedback and good discussion.”

The House began its third sitting on Feb. 10, and the premier said legislators planned to debate the bill then.

What the bill includes

The subject of modernising police legislation has been in and out of the spotlight in recent years. The House introduced the Police Act, 2019 that year, then revisited the proposed legislation in early 2020.

Members sent it to standing select committee for about four months, again debated the bill that July, and then sent it back to committee again.

The bill aims to replace the decades-old legislation governing law enforcement in the VI, even renaming the police force as the “Royal Virgin Islands Police Service.”

The Police Act, 2023 codifies the police commissioner’s general powers, details the qualifications necessary for police officers, prohibits officers from engaging in political activities, and generally outlines officers’ duties.

The power of search and seizure is also detailed, as is the power of detention and arrest. Under the bill, officers would be permitted to make arrests without an order from a magistrate or warrant in certain circumstances — for instance, for “any person whom [the officer] suspects upon reasonable grounds of having committed or of being about to commit an offence punishable upon indictment.”

Previous concerns

However, previous versions of the legislation — which were very similar to the current bill — drew concern from some HOA members.

In 2020, for instance, Opposition member Julian Fraser asked whether giving police broader powers to take fingerprints or other physical specimens from a person in custody could be unconstitutional.

The passages Mr. Fraser questioned remain in the 2023 bill.

Dr. Wheatley — who was then the minister of education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture — said at the time that legislators must ensure police officers have the powers they need to do their job without infringing on community members’ civil liberties.

He also called for extensive public consultation. Though most of the current bill matches the 2019 version almost word-for-word, Dr. Wheatley said on Feb. 2 that legislators wanted to make a few changes.

One of the changes was removing a section on the power to arrest fellow police officers.

A section removed from the 2019 bill states, “A police officer may arrest without warrant a police officer of a rank lower than his or hers who is accused of an offence against discipline under this act.”

Covert operations

The 2023 bill, which was Gazetted on Feb. 3, also adds a section on covert police operations, stating that police would be “allowed to conduct covert operations and shall only be allowed to intercept and record communications in the following circumstances.”

Those circumstances include investigations of “serious crime including indictable offences generally and offences under the Mutual Legal Assistance Act and the Drug Trafficking Act.”

The bill would allow the covert interception and recording of communications only in three other specific instances: “where all other normal methods of investigation [have] been utilised and failed, or from the nature of the situation, [would] be unlikely to succeed if tried; where there is good reason [to believe] the use of the equipment to intercept and record communications would likely lead to an arrest and a conviction, or where appropriate, to the prevention of acts of terrorism; or the use of equipment would be operationally feasible.”

Under the bill, it would be up to the police commissioner to decide when to use covert operations.