July 29, 2002 – Although homicides continue to escalate in the territory, Police Commissioner Franz Christian gave the Senate Finance Committee a generally optimistic overview of the Police Department at Monday's budget hearing.
There have been 23 killings in the Virgin Islands so far this year, versus 14 at this time last year and 11 the year before that. The territory had a per capita homicide rate five times the national average last year.
Christian did not touch on these matters, nor did any senators raise them. He did talk about the department's new ideas in policing. "The conventional approaches to policing are outmoded," he told the committee Monday, "and our focus is now incorporating the concepts that are making community-oriented policing a success across the nation."
"Forging meaningful partnerships with the residents of the neighborhoods that we have identified through the review of our statistical data will allow us to solve problems at a social level," Christian said. "This will be one of our strategies for proactive crime fighting."
And, he added,"In the next six months, you'll see a transition that you can't believe." He said a structure is being developed to transition the police force from a conventional vehicle patrol to more integration and direct involvement with the citizenry. The process will take two years, he said. And the department has a federal Community Oriented Policing grant to provide training for 72 police officers over a four-year period.
The Police Department regularly asks members of the community to come forward with information about crimes. If the public had supplied more leads, Christian told the senators, perhaps the search for Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams, a St. Croix police officer who has been missing since June 2001, would be moving more rapidly.
In response to questions, Police Chief Novelle Francis and Christian said the investigation is ongoing. Francis said revealing details could tip off suspects, but he emphasized that progress is being made.
As with many other budget hearings, the budget ostensibly under review took up very little of the committee's time. Christian did not ask to raise the ante on the governor's recommended Fiscal Year 2003 budget total of $46 million $37.5 from the General Fund and $8.5 from federal funds. That's $1.7 million, or 3.84 percent, over the FY 2002 revised budget of $44.3.
Christian said 94 percent of the department budget goes for salaries, with the balance going for operating expenses, equipment and supplies. He said the increase in this year's appropriation reflects salary increases for all employees. He said money is now available to hire a police psychologist as well as 24 new officers hired over the last two months.
The department has taken advantage of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's directive to re-hire retired police officers, Christian said, and has augmented the force with peace officers from other government agencies.
However, Christian said, "The problems that continuously plague the department are manpower and equipment shortages." Until the department attains "full authorized strength," he said, "we will be compelled to pay our overtime to … police officers." He attributed the need for overtime to court appearances, special initiatives, staff shortages, late cases, emergency responses and a host of other variables.
Motor Vehicle Bureau
The shortages aren't confined to operational divisions, Christian said; they exist in revenue-generating areas including the Motor Vehicle Bureau.
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole seized upon this, calling MVB director Lawrence A. Olive to the well. Cole demanded to know why every time he goes to the MVB, he is accosted by angry residents awaiting attention in the lines there wanting to know what's wrong. Last week the MVB office on St. Thomas was closed for a day because the only two cashiers both called in sick — something Olive had acknowledged and explained on a radio call-in show.
Cole wanted to know where the appropriation the Legislature has given MVB has gone. Olive said the agency's computer software is 15 years old. "As we speak, the computers are down," Olive said. He said other employees cannot sit in for the cashiers because each cashier is bonded and has her own code to get into the computer. Cole said some portion of the estimated $8 million to $10 million in revenues taken in by the agency each year should be used to update the software.
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel asked Christian about the department's communications equipment, citing a case on St. John where an officer lacked the necessary equipment to protect himself. Christian said $4.1 million is needed to meet communications equipment needs, and this requires a "different funding source."
He said the department "installed a new communication platform that was to bring forth new communications technology." However, Christian said, the process has encountered "unexpected difficulties."
Accomplishments and goals
Christian listed as department accomplishments in FY 2002 and goals for FY 2003:
– Continuing to remove illegal firearms and drugs from the streets.
– Having added an Office of Management and Information Systems to facilitate a fully integrated automated system. Two persons are assigned to the office; it will need more personnel, he said.
– Having purchased 29 new police vehicles.
– Plans to install security systems at the Alexander Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas.
– Continuing with renovations of the Rainbow Complex and the Patrick Sweeney Police Headquarters on St. Croix to accommodate the MVB, internal affairs and investigation units, and a training academy.
– Continuing through the Sweeney headquarters to provide a community outreach center for domestic violence family counseling, an after-school enrichment center for at-risk children, a library facility and a computer literacy vocational training center for adults.
– Plans to renovate the marine unit facilities and repair marine vessels on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
– Plans to construct a canine kennel on St. Thomas and purchase two explosives-detection canines for the territory.
– Continuing to renovate the MVB facility on St. Thomas.
– Renovating the government complex on St. John and relocation of the MVB.
– Continuing to improve recruitment strategies. A train-the-trainer program is in place which sends personnel off-island for training the other officers.
– Plans to hire civilian personnel for understaffed support areas.
After having the entire department adequately staffed at all levels, state-of-the-art facilities, year-'round training and more career incentives, Christian said, two more goals are to hire communications technicians to eliminate the "exorbitant expenses" of hiring outside contractors, and to acquire a facility in Coral Bay on St. John.
Off the subject
The Police Department budget was scheduled for 10 a.m, with a Port Authority overview scheduled for noon. However, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, the Finance Committee chair, kept Christian and other police officers in the chambers until about 2 p.m. as she went on a tirade about issues Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. had earlier addressed, matters having nothing to do with the Police Department budget.
Hansen and White were critical of Sen. Lorraine Berry's remarks on her Monday radio show about a meeting held last week on the Lovenlund project for middle income housing near Mahogany Run. Berry had called the meeting for residents and proponents of the project to air their views. (See the St. Thomas Source story "Two tiers and more of Lovenlund conflicts".)
Hansen made scathing remarks about Berry, mystifying some in the Senate chamb
ers who were there to hear the Police Department budget or were awaiting the VIPA budget overview.
Meantime, Gordon Finch, Port Authority executive director, and other VIPA officers sat in the chambers until Hansen finally told Finch that he could leave and return at 3 p.m. after a recess.
Committee members attending the hearing were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Cole, Carlton Dowe, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Hansen, Jn Baptiste and Pickard-Samuel. Non-committee members present were Sena. Almando "Rocky" Liburd and White.
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