354 James Walter Francis Drive
RJT Edifice Building, 5th Floor
Road Town, TORTOLA VG1110
Tel: 284 468 2730
Fax: 284 468 2750
Madam Speaker, I present this statement to the people of the Virgin Islands on the Police Act 2023, which has been subject to much scrutiny since its first reading in the House of Assembly a week ago. For the benefit of the public, I will give a brief timeline of the progression of the Bill to this stage.
Madam Speaker, the Police Act Cap 165 was originally passed in 1986. The most recent revision was enacted in 2013. In 2015 the National Security Council considered and approved a new Police Act, and this Bill was first introduced in the House of Assembly in 2018. As security is a matter that falls under the remit of the Governor, this Bill would have been prepared through the collaboration of the Deputy Governor’s Office, the Police, the Attorney General with input from the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Premier brings the Bill to the House of Assembly on behalf of the Governor.
Obviously, Madam Speaker, the Bill was not passed by the Third House of Assembly, and it was again introduced in the Fourth House of Assembly. It was introduced a number of times, but not passed. It has been in the public sphere literally for years.
There has been significant time spent, significant edits made and criticisms heard, which include public concerns. Madam Speaker, I personally was involved in consultations on the Police Act in Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, and all throughout Tortola. As a result of the feedback we received last year, we proposed a number of amendments to the Bill. In addition to the proposed amendments based on public consultation a number of additional amendments were made to the Bill that the pubic did not request and were not privy to. These changes are reflected in the Bill that was introduced to the House of Assembly a week ago.
Madam Speaker, I want to make it clear that there is no intention by any member of the House of Assembly to pass this Bill in its current form. We recognize a number of areas that are clearly problematic. Members of the House of Assembly have engaged the Bar Association, individual lawyers, concerned citizens, and a number of others, and the concerns are consistent. We convened an informal meeting of the House, and we communicated with top officials of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force and communicated that under no circumstances would this Bill be passed without amendments to the areas that have caused such grave concern to the Members of the House and the public at large.
I applaud the officials of the RVIPF who collaboratively worked through the areas that should be amended to protect the public while allowing the Police the power to protect and serve the public.
Madam Speaker, on a personal note, I am the last person in the Virgin Islands who would facilitate Police having powers which can be abused. I will share three experiences I had where I was a victim of police abuse. In 1996 I was walking down the street one late night in Road Town. A jeep pulled next to me, and a man jumped out and pointed a gun at my head and told me to get down on the ground. He cuffed me, put me in the back of the jeep, and took me to the Police Station for questioning. After realizing that I was not who they thought, I was released.
Madam Speaker, on another occasion, while studying in Atlanta in 1999, a police officer gave me a traffic ticket that I thought was unjust. I protested, and he said if I said one more word, I would spend the night in jail. I continued protesting, and he arrested me and I spent the night in jail.
Madam Speaker, on a third occasion, while studying in the United Kingdom in 2004, I had an encounter while visiting a friend’s home. Two police officers in plain clothes approached me and accused me of carrying a crowbar in my school bag that I used to break into people’s homes. I thought that this was an outrageous accusation and refused to be searched. The two officers than jumped on me and we had a struggle for about 20 minutes. They managed to get me down and cuffed me. They called for back up and there were about 9 officers who surrounded me and were pushing me around the circle. When an onlooker walked by, they finally left, but not before emptying my school books out of my bag onto the street.
Madam Speaker, I am perhaps the only Virgin Islander in the history who have led a March in London, protesting a death in police custody. Madam Speaker, I am the last person who would give the police powers that can be abused.
Madam Speaker, as a leader in this community, as a member of the National Security Council, and as someone very concerned about crime, I also know that we need to modernize our Police Act to take criminals off the street. Madam Speaker, passage of this Bill presents hope of success in solving many unsolved murders in the BVI.
Madam Speaker, In its current form, the Police Act (Cap. 165) is not fully reflective of modern policing practices, contemporary human resources practices and current technological advances in the prevention and detection of crime, such as DNA testing and electronic data analysis. It is therefore necessary to modernize the existing Act.
The revised Police Act brings together the varied amendments, regulations and codes of practice, along with recent developments in police terms and conditions (particularly civilianisation of some roles, disciplinary matters and professional standards, and the promotion process), advances in crime-fighting technology (particularly CCTV and DNA testing) and the professionalization of the constitutional role of the RVIPF.
Madam Speaker, we must enact the changes necessary to equip the force to protect and serve, and in committee stage we must remove the areas that we all are gravely concerned about. We will not debate the Bill today. We will allow more time to consult, discuss, and prepare the necessary amendments to be considered by the public and members.
I’d like to thank the people of the Virgin Islands for their engagement and vigilance. We expect that members of the public will always be engaged on matters of interest and participate in the discussions that impact their lives. I make this public commitment in front of all those who are listening and watching that this Bill will be moved forward in a collaborative and transparent manner—one which honours the men and women in the RVIPF as well as the members of the public who they have sworn to serve and protect.
I take seriously my commitment to protect the interests of the people of the Virgin Islands. I am committed to ensuring that we strike the right balance between the powers of the police and the protection of civil liberties. We will ensure that the members of the public are safer as residents by allowing the police to have enough legal support to ensure their actions can best protect you while ensuring that the people of Virgin Islands have legal support to prevent abuses. Madam Speaker, this is democracy, and when everyone participates and everyone is informed and everyone is guided by principles of decency, fairness, equality, and respect, the end product is always better. Madam Speaker, I thank you.