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HOUSING AUTHORITY POLICE TO FIGHT DISMANTLING

Dec. 2, 2002 – Members of the special police force assigned to protect the territory's public housing communities say they will fight a directive from the V.I. Housing Authority to disband at the end of this month.
Layoff notices began arriving for members of the Housing Authority Police in mid-November. Signed by VIHA's new executive director, Ray Fonseca, they commended the officers for their "admirable" work but said the decision to terminate their jobs could not be avoided.
"It was never, and is not now, our desire to end the services of the Housing Police, but we have no choice," Fonseca wrote. "It is my sad duty to inform you that your program appointment and the VIHA Police Department will end on Dec. 31, 2002."
Fonseca told the officers that efforts are being made to reassign them or otherwise link their services to the regular Police Department. But in a brief release issued late Monday, housing police officials indicated they would not go quietly.
They have called a press conference Tuesday morning at Housing Authority Police headquarters in the Oswald Harris Court housing community on St. Thomas. The subject of the meeting is expected to be the pending demise of the specialized police unit.
"We will fight this," an officer answering the telephone at the headquarters on Monday said.
Twenty-four Housing Authority Police officers on St. Thomas and St. Croix serve an estimated 12,000 residents of the territory's public housing communities.
VIHA operations are almost completely funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has ordered the local authority to streamline its operations to make up a $3 million budget deficit. (See "VIHA forced to cut spending, may face layoffs".)
Fonseca was appointed to his duties by the Housing Authority board of commissioners in October, around the time HUD approved the agency's 2002 budget and issued a Letter of Intent saying it would continue to fund public housing in the Virgin Islands but on the condition that the authority adopt a balanced budget policy and eliminate the deficit.
The cost-reduction plan being developed calls for the elimination of the Housing Authority Police force. In his termination letter, Fonseca also noted that the territory has lost its HUD Drug Elimination Grant funding. A spokesman for HUD's Caribbean field office in Puerto Rico said on Monday that loss of funding for the grant occurred nationwide and should not be construed to reflect on any failure by the V.I. Housing Authority Police.
"No funds were appropriated by Congress this year," said Hector Mercado, assistant to the director of the HUD field office in San Juan.
The decision to dismantle the housing community police force comes at a time when the territory is experiencing a wave of homicides that is running nearly double last year's rate, with 42 killings to date, with four weeks left in the year.
"We had eight homicides in the last three months. Out of eight, there were four in housing developments," said Sgt. Annette Raimer, spokeswoman for the regular Police Department on St. Thomas. (She did not elaborate on the source of those figures; police have recorded 14 killings since Sept. 1 of this year, three on St. Thomas and the other 11 on St. Croix.)
Raimer declined to comment on what strategy the Police Department might adopt in the face of losing the presence of the VIHA force.

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