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Speaker: Fighting Crime Requires Community Involvement

Aug. 17, 2005 — Hoping to find real solutions to the recent increase in crime across the territory, residents gathering at a public hearing on Wednesday saw that it’s going to take a lot more than talk in order for conditions to improve—it’s going to require the efforts and strength of the whole community.
"Crime can be prevented … that’s not an impossible situation. But it takes real community policing for that to happen," National Crime Prevention Council President Al Lenhardt said. "Things like neighborhood watch programs, after-school options for kids so that they don’t have to turn to gang violence … these are the strategies we need. Public safety officers can’t handle everything on their own, and we can’t continue to give up our streets to criminals. We need to work together to make a difference."
Lenhardt added that his organization accomplishes this by cooperating with various other agencies in order to prevent and fight crime, substance abuse, and juvenile delinquency—and by creating advertisement campaigns such as the "Take a Bite Out of Crime" commercials, which feature McGruff, the crime-fighting dog.
"Studies have shown that nine out of 10 young people see McGruff as a trusted friend, and adults who know him are more likely to know how to prevent crime in their neighborhoods," Lenhardt said. "You have to provide some similar method of education for your community down here … let people know what they can do to help."
Lendhardt also suggested that the Virgin Islands begin to operate under the "broken window theory" developed by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, whereby little crimes that currently go unnoticed by law enforcement officials need to be addressed in order to prevent bigger crimes from happening. "If you begin to give tickets for things like speeding, or to individuals who are not wearing their seatbelts, then it will prevent bigger violations from happening in the future."
Lenhardt said that such methods were successfully used by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in order to prevent crime on the mainland. "The trick is really to take small bites out of crime … the magic lies with you, with the steps that you take to improve life within your own communities. Remember, it has become evident that neighborhoods with high civic involvement consistently show low crime rates."
Moved by Lenhardt’s remarks, residents present at the meeting soon began to come forward with their own suggestions to curb criminal activity—suggestions which inevitably turned toward a reformation of the V.I. Police Department.
"It’s no secret that the residents don’t trust our police officers," resident Krim M. Ballentine said. "That’s because the police are just as afraid as the locals are … and we need to take steps to curtail that. There should be senior officers training the younger officers … there should be captains of each zone within the territory, individuals who know all the activities of community members within that zone. That way, whenever an emergency happens, that captain will know exactly what to do, who to contact. The VIPD needs to set that policy so that we can abide by it."
Law enforcement official Ike Williams added that it would also be helpful if officers utilize the hidden cameras put up in many St. Thomas neighborhoods so that crime could be more effectively monitored. "This is the time to be vigilant … our community needs to bond together, and the officers have to set the example. They could actually start by being more friendly to residents they see on the streets—I’ve said hello to officers so many times and have never received a greeting in response. That doesn’t make them accessible to us."
Other residents similarly mentioned that VIPD should listen to complaints made about neighborhood crime. "I live in Savan … and for the past four years, I’ve dealt with people up and down the street from me smoking/selling marijuana, drug dealing, gambling, engaging in prostitution," Glenn Bonelli, senior medic at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital, said. "I’ve made complaints to the police department, met with officials like [Public Safety] Commissioner Elton Lewis, and nothing has happened. Four years … and I’m really making the effort to eliminate drugs in my community. That’s frustrating to me."
Responding to Bonelli’s statements, many public officials present at the hearing offered their services to aid in efforts to eradicate crime in Savan. Residents, too, gave suggestions of relief in the form of establishing a neighborhood watch program.
"The way to go is community bonding … I established a community watch program in my neighborhood—the Nazareth Bay area—and we’ve seen a drastic decrease in our crime levels," resident Sydney Flax said. "We’ve named our streets, had the Zoning Commission put them on their map, and given that information to the police and fire departments so that they will always know where to go in case of an emergency."
Flax added that he and neighbors have also cleared their area of all abandoned vehicles to eliminate the hiding of drugs and contraband, as well as established and maintained an active communication system. "We have foghorns, like the ones used on fishing boats, and in case of an emergency, we blow our horns. When one goes off, all of them go off," Flax said.
Lenhardt further encouraged residents to take heed of such success stories. "These are the things you have to do, and I’m encouraged when I hear that. It means that you’re going in the right direction … now all that the V.I. needs to do is act. Get on it … make these things happen. If you do, you’ll be able to see the results you’re waiting for."
Wednesday’s meeting, held at the Holiday Inn at Windward Passage in St. Thomas, was sponsored by the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, and Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen.
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