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Commissioner: Community Is Key to Solving Crime

Aug. 9, 2004 – Police Commissioner Elton Lewis might be sitting in the hottest seat in the Virgin Islands. Fear appears to be on the rise as letter writers speak of "out of control" crime. And crime continues to be blamed for the dismal state of the economy on St. Croix as cruise ships avoid the island and tourists are assaulted at their resorts.
In an interview with the Source last week, Lewis said he doesn't want to hide from those problems; he wants to confront them and fix them.
He acknowledges that the problems won't be resolved overnight and has instituted a comprehensive plan involving employees of the Police Department and many members of the community. He emphasizes, "I can't do this alone."
In a memorandum to members of the Police Department at the beginning of last month, he said the next six months would be critical. He wrote, "It will be a time for integrating change into our everyday lives, creating trust where there has been none, opening lines of communications like they've never been and challenging the way things have been done. There's an old saying, 'If you do what you've been always done, you'll get what you've always gotten.' Together, we're going to create a different future."
Along with the memorandum there was a survey form for employees to fill out regarding the department's performance to date.
The survey was just one method that Lewis has used to gain information for his strategic plan. In June he held a retreat on St. Thomas where 18 members of what he calls his executive staff worked on developing the framework for the plan. He also has formed focus groups of citizens to meet and discuss what the problems of the Police Department are and how they can be solved. The focus groups include business people, laborers, educators, finance workers, people in the tourism trade, youths, clergy and lawyers.
Alicia Wells, who works for the Education Department, said on Monday, "I am very impressed with Elton Lewis." She is part of the focus group on St. John. The group has met once and Lewis spoke to it. Members filled out survey forms which gave them the opportunity to express their concerns about the Police Department.
"This is a good start," Wells said. "We just have to follow through." She added that she thought the focus groups were "a good avenue to keep communication open between the Police Department and the community."
Change Seen in Three to Six Months
Lewis indicated in his interview on Aug. 1 that he did not intend to get bogged down in the planning stages. He told the Source, "I guarantee you will see a change in three to six months."
What he tells his employees seems to contain some carrot and some stick. He emphasizes that the department is one of "common ownership" which includes all employees sharing in what positively happens to it. However, when talking about rude dispatchers or uncooperative officers on the street, he said, "They will learn that for every action, there will be a consequence."
His "common ownership" ideal also includes members of the community. He said community members could play a large part in making the community safer. In an Op-ed article in the Source last week, he gave details on how community watch groups could be formed. (See "Commissioner Offers Solutions for Crime Problems".)
Lewis said 366 surveys were returned from the rank and file at the department. The answers told him that the employees "were crying out for leadership." He added, "They want change. Change must come. Change will come."
Lewis should not find it hard to relate to the rank and file of the department. He started as a patrolman on the force in 1973. He has worked in training and security. He has been a chief detective and worked in investigations before becoming commissioner. (See "Senate Unanimous: Lewis as Police Commissioner".)
He said when the strategic plan is implemented, he wants the rank and file to see it as "their plan," not his plan.
Plan to Be Reviewed Annually
He said the plan would be a "living document" that would be looked at every year at the department's annual meeting.
The plan, according to Lewis, will be a valuable tool in helping to communicate goals, objectives and strategies of the department. It will be used to compare the expectations of the community to the actual performance of the department.
Lewis shows how serious he is about confronting the problems in his list of primary messages to the public. The first message says "The V.I. Police Department has a significant internal challenge with morale, nepotism, performance, mid-level leadership, communication and customer service."
The second message is "We have begun to clean up the V.I. Police Department" and the third is "the V.I. Police Department does care." This indicates that the problems of Message 1 will be confronted.
In response to Message 2, the department has begun to look into areas of overtime abuse, fraud, waste, and doing personal business on the public's time.
Further down the list at Message 7 is the response that Lewis wants to get out about specific crime problems. This message is to address home invasions, rape, burglary, robbery, deadly force, and below-average-performing personnel. His response is, "We're working closely with all local and federal agencies. We're bringing all resources to bear."
Roger Dewey, executive director of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, helped set up the first focus group meeting on St. Croix. As with the one on St. John, about 20 people attended. Dewey said it is a little early in the process to predict accurately where it is headed.
Speaking specifically about Lewis, he said that the commissioner appeared to be a strong leader and "he might be the right guy to get the job done."

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