A DPNR Enforcement Officer in July 2012 on the Coral Bay public dock, above, seen with his gun clearly out of its holster.
After more than six months of silence, Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials last week issued a press release related to their Enforcement Officers’ actions in Coral Bay.
DPNR Enforcement Officers swept through Coral Bay in July 2012, cutting mooring lines and threatening citizens, according to several eye witnesses. One DPNR Enforcement Officer was even video-taped waving his gun around on the public dock with children and other citizens in the area.
Those actions prompted wide-spread and vocal protests by Coral Bay residents, who asked DPNR officials to look into the matter. Days after the incidents, DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes announced that the Department of Justice was leading an investigation into the matter.
Finally last week, DPNR issued a press release on the DOJ’s report on that investigation. The actual DOJ report, however, was not available last week. Repeated calls to Attorney General Vincent Frazer’s office were not returned last week.
The press release from DPNR in its entirety:
“Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes said Thursday that her agency is in receipt of the Justice Department’s findings on the Coral Bay, St. John investigation.
“The investigative report was prompted by allegations from the Coral Bay community of intimidation and improper enforcement actions by DPNR Enforcement Officers in July 2012.
“[DPNR] Commissioner Barnes considered these allegations to be serious and solicited the assistance of the Department of Justice to carry out an independent investigation.
“The investigation included interviews with certain members of the boating community in Coral Bay and the DPNR Enforcement Officers involved in the incident. Director Roberto Tapia of the Division of Environmental Enforcement confirmed that the division was involved in a week-long initiative in Coral Bay to rid the area of illegal moorings and to enforce on the large number of unregistered vessels in that area.
“The Department of Justice’s report reiterates that Title 25 subsection 303 of the VI Code provides that every Peace Officer, including DPNR Enforcement Officers, shall have the authority to stop and board any vessel to enforce the safe operation of all motor vessels.
“Therefore, DPNR Officers had legal authority to board the vessels in question in July 2012.
“The department acknowledges that DPNR Officers exercised poor judgment in the handling of their weapon and in the execution of their duties.
“The Justice’s report has recommended that DPNR Enforcement Officers must advise persons receiving citations that failure to pay the fine will result in a summons to appear before the Virgin Islands Superior Court, which allows the person to contest the ticket if they wish. This will reduce the occurrences of these incidents and allow the Court to interpret the law and provide guidance to both parties involved in the matter.
“The Justice report also recommended that 1) all DPNR Enforcement Officers complete annual in service training provided by the V.I. Police Department’s Training Academy to all law enforcement officers and 2) that an Enforcement Officer be reprimanded for improper handling of his departmental-issued weapon.
“Although there was no finding of malicious intent, DPNR has followed the guidance from the Department of Justice and has reprimanded one officer for the improper handling of his weapon. I also note that as part of in-service training, all DPNR officers presently complete annual, week-long, refresher courses covering topics from constitutional law to firearms recertification,” Barnes said.
“The Department of Planning and Natural Resources will continue to enforce all laws which govern our territory’s marine industry but at the same time, will take serious note and action when complaints of this nature are filed with the department,” Barnes concluded.”
DPNR’s press release, however, did not satisfy many Coral Bay residents.
“I hope the reprimand and the training for those guys is about their attitude, not just about that gun,” said one Coral Bay resident, who asked to not be identified. “They came in here cutting moorings and they’ve done it before.”
Far from being an isolated incident by one officer, Coral Bay residents allege that this type of behavior is continually seen by DPNR Enforcement Officers.
“This press release is totally ridiculous,” said Will Hudson.
“The way they treated us goes way beyond getting a little slap on the wrist. They violated our civil rights and I’m not satisfied with this.”
“This type of thing happens across this island, not just in Coral Bay, and on other islands too,” said Hudson. “This is the way they operate at DPNR. This cannot continue.”
Coral Bay Community Council President Sharon Coldren and Coral Bay Yacht Club Commodore Stephen Hendren both declined to comment until they could read the DOJ’s report.
“We would like to see the report from the AG’s Office,” said Hendren. “This is incomplete, we don’t have all the information.”
“We were promised the report from the AG’s office and we need to see that report,” said Coldren.