Coming on the heels of widespread protests around the world concerning the death of George Floyd and the role of police in communities, the House of Assembly is considering a bill that would repeal and replace the current decades-old legislation governing law enforcement in the Virgin Islands.
“It is imperative that we know exactly what this replacement is, and not just us, but the public,” opposition member Julian Fraser said July 10 in the HOA. “The public should have a say in what this bill is going to be.”
The Police Act, 2019 last went to standing select committee about four months ago. It is designed to modernise the laws governing the police force. Last Friday, members voted to once again send the bill to select committee while they seek more public input on the legislation.
Under the proposed act, the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force would be renamed the Royal Virgin Islands Police Service. The bill also specifies 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.
The powers allocated to law enforcement drew concern from Mr. Fraser, who questioned the constitutionality of clauses like one allowing officers to take fingerprints or other physical specimen from a person in custody.
Mr. Fraser said the legislation should also include measures to address police brutality.
Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley agreed with Mr. Fraser that the bill should be given special attention and extensive public consultation.
He cited his personal experiences with racial profiling here and abroad, and said legislators must ensure officers have the powers they need to do their jobs without infringing on community members’ civil liberties.
“It’s something that we have to keep an eye on and be diligent about,” Dr. Wheatley said. “We have to pay attention to it to ensure we do not allow an element to creep into our society which we identify as police brutality, police misconduct.”