V.I. Police are continuing to use excessive force on people with severe symptoms of mental illness, according to the latest report by a court-appointed independent monitor, but government officials say the use of Tasers and pepper spray on individuals in crisis is justified.
The department is still not in compliance with a federal consent decree, which is intended to stop officers from engaging in unconstitutional police practices, according to a report filed Monday by the head of the monitoring team, law enforcement expert Chet Epperson.
“Several” of the 19 use of force incidents reviewed this quarter did not conform to department policy or the consent decree, including an April 2021 incident involving the death of a 33-year-old man, according to the report.
In that case, “The VIPD did not use all available means and resources to complete the investigation in a timely manner, nor did they thoroughly investigate the incident to determine how the man died.”
The incident occurred on April 19, 2021, according to the report.
The monitoring team “is not suggesting that VIPD use of force directly caused the male’s death, but is concerned with unanswered and open issues within the investigation and the undocumented reason(s) for the delay in completing the investigation in a timely manner.”
In that case, the subject’s mother called for emergency medical responders to transport her son to the hospital for treatment, and EMTs called police for assistance.
The subject was pacing when police arrived, and “at one point jumped into his mother’s auto and requested to go to the hospital,” according to the report. The woman said she was uncomfortable transporting him, and officers watched as the man ran back into the home, came out with a vase and “broke it on his face,” causing him to start bleeding.
The man ran back into the home and came out with what appeared to be a bottle of bleach, which he “gargled” and spat out, and while he was heard saying “I need my medication,” he refused to comply with police orders to get into the waiting ambulance, according to the report.
“At one point, the male was running on top of roof of the residence. The male then ran around his mother’s auto and officers blocked his path. There are two versions as to what occurred next: one version of the reports indicates a supervisor deployed two bursts of oleoresin capsicum spray,” according to the report.
The first two versions of the investigative reports that police submitted to the monitoring team “indicated a sergeant used the TASER,” and that information “was finally approved by an Assistant Police Commissioner” without thorough review, according to the monitoring team’s report.
Police submitted “an updated and 3rd corrected Deputy Chief investigative report” to the monitoring team on May 2, 2022, indicating that police did not deploy a stun gun on the subject, according to the report.
After police pepper sprayed him, the subject was taken into custody and transported to the hospital in a squad car.
“Upon arrival at the hospital, the subject of force unbuckled himself and began to spit and strike his head against the metal cage in the squad car, causing injuries to his head. The subject would not comply with officers and his legs were then placed into leg cuffs and he was taken into a secure holding room,” according to the report.
Two nurses injected the man with medication, and told police officers they could leave, according to the report. “A little while later, the officers were informed the subject had coded and then died.”
A criminal investigation into the death was closed on Nov. 17, after an autopsy report showed that the cause of death was pulmonary edema due to cardiac arrhythmia — a buildup of fluid in the lungs caused by an irregular heartbeat.
The monitors said five police officers, including a lieutenant and sergeant, stood and watched as the man repeatedly harmed himself.
“The officers took no control in establishing communication with the subject and or seizing the opportunity to take the male into protective custody when he entered his mother’s auto. It is clear the responding VIPD officers had no control of the situation,” according to the report.
The subject was involved in a previous use of force incident on March 26, 2021, which “is still open” and under investigation by the monitoring team, according to the report.
There were another three use of force incidents involving a stun gun, or Taser, and “all three were deemed unjustified and not authorized” by the monitoring team, “although the VIPD found all of the incidents within policy and justified,” according to the report. “All three of the TASER incidents involved a mentally ill individual.”
Assistant V.I. Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs filed a response Wednesday, and said that “VIPD takes the position that the taser use by VIPD officers was justified in all three cases.”
In the case involving a fatality, the monitoring team’s “claim that the VIPD officers had no control of the situation is certainly an unfair conclusion,” Thomas-Jacobs wrote.
The subject “was a mentally ill patient who was having a serious mental health episode,” and his erratic behavior posed the threat of harm to others, she wrote.
“The officers tried to wait him out and made several attempts to de-escalate the situation. VIPD repeatedly talked to the subject and tried to calm him down, but he did not comply,” according to the response. “The emergency medical responders were afraid he would hurt them and they called for help. VIPD officers are not healthcare providers and have no authority to administer medication to mentally ill patients. Considering the facts and circumstances, the aggression exhibited by the subject, and VIPD officers attempts to deescalate, the level of force used so that the subject could be taken to the hospital for treatment was reasonable.”