Sept. 8, 2004 – East End residents turned out in force to the V. I. Police Department town hall meeting in Red Hook Wednesday night. The crowd of 60 came armed with questions, comments and more than a little anger at the rising crime afflicting their neighborhoods.
Armed robberies, home invasions and drug pushing have become commonplace, according to most of those who spoke, several of whom were recent crime victims. And many shared the view that the police have been less than effective in dealing with the problems.
Shouts rang out more than once in the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School Auditorium. One speaker, a St. Thomas resident in his 60s, said he's begun to feel "more and more threatened" in his community and in his own home. He said his car was stolen last Sunday and his wife has been spending more and more time off island because of her growing fear. He asked the crowd for a show of hands from those who "feel we have a serious crime problem," and just about every hand in the room shot into the air.
Elton Lewis, V.I. police commissioner, who handled most of the questions during the two-hour meeting, said, "I could ask the same question in any neighborhood in the territory and all the hands would go up, and rightly so."
Several speakers identified themselves as having suffered armed robberies in their homes in recent weeks. Minors are suspected in these much-publicized robberies, and on Wednesday, the victims learned the difficult facts of the juvenile justice system.
One angered resident had, only weeks ago, spent a half-hour staring at a gun held by one of two "kids" who were robbing him. The resident jumped from his seat and demanded to know why, when the suspects were taken into custody, he was not called to identify them. Sgt. Thomas Hannah, public information officer, explained that here, as in every American jurisdiction, minors cannot be placed in lineups. "This is universal," Hannah said. "The identity of minors is protected by the law."
Wednesday night's session, the third such meeting to take place in the territory since July, is part of department initiative to change its image in the community. (See "Police Listen to Residents Concerns About Crimes") The meetings are also, as Lewis and others in the department have repeatedly stated, a call for help.
"The reality is that we're living in different times and we have to get together as a community and face these challenges," Lewis said.
Kenneth "Blakie" Blake, crime prevention program director, told the crowd at the outset, "You are our eyes and ears in this community." At this meeting, as well as one held Aug. 20 at Charlotte Amlie High School, Blake pushed the importance of neighborhood watch programs.
Lewis has been candid about the department's problems during these sessions. Chief items among the problems he sees are a lack of proper funding, not enough personnel, and a dearth of viable officer candidates. Recently, he received the go ahead to hire new officers, but has had trouble finding good candidates.
He said that 60 of 100 recent applicants were rejected during their initial background checks. Of the remaining 40, he expects only 10 will make it through to become law officers.
A possible solution to the manpower shortage is what Lewis called "lateral transfer," whereby officers from mainland jurisdictions would join the V.I. force. Lewis said such transfers still face local hurdles though. "We are in the process of doing legal and legislative research into this," he said.
Lewis also said the department is doing all it can with federal grant money, as well as various fundraising initiatives. He told the group that private citizens on St. Croix have already raised $25,000 for the police there.
Other concerns raised by East End residents included the absence of their own police substation, not enough patrol officers and the lack of a comprehensive mapping system that would speed up police response time.
Lewis admitted most of the problems raised don't have near term solutions. He also pointed to the complexity of the overall picture of crime in the territory. "Economic and social problems are turning into crime problems. Are the police responsible for all of this?" he asked.
He urged the crowd to begin inviting members of other agencies to community meetings and holding them accountable as well. The attorney general, the human services commissioner, and V.I. senators were a few he named who share in the responsibility of public safety.
Deputy Chief Elvin Fahie, James McCall, assistant commissioner, Ray Martinez, internal investigations director, and a number of rank and file officers were also in attendance.
There were no V.I. senators present.
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