Lewis Wants Union to Help, Not Hurt the Department

Aug. 19, 2006 – Aretha Franklin said it best – "R-E-S-P-E-C-T".
The Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD) is struggling with a respect issue and it is steadily undermining our officers' relationship with the department and the community. The foundation of this department is cracking under the lack of respect that the police unions have for management.
I am a police officer and sympathetic to the needs of the officers who are charged with protecting this community. What the officers want is what I want: good working conditions, safe and dependable transportation, training, better pay, promotions, and the tools and equipment needed to capably perform their duties. Most importantly, I want the Police Department and its officers to have the respect and admiration of our community. I want the officers and unions to acknowledge that the success of this department must be a team effort and one that is not accomplished with divisive words and actions.
Upon assuming the leadership of this department in 2003, one of my first acts as Commissioner was to hire a Labor Relations Manager to foster communication between management and the unions. I met with the unions and conducted a survey to discover their most pressing needs and concerns. As a veteran of this Police Department, I was already aware of a number of these long-standing deficiencies. My goal was simple – to learn where union and management concerns dovetail and work towards a holistic solution.
Toward that end, I have brought a number of changes to the VIPD. Our officers are now equipped with larger caliber handguns, collapsible batons, pepper spray, tasers, personal protective equipment kits, shooting simulators, improved technology and most importantly, radios. The officers of this department are now driving a fleet of new, custom-built police vehicles and are in many cases, provided these cars on a take home basis. Our personnel requested more training; during the past three and a half years, they have received more training than in all the prior years combined. In fact, some officers are now complaining that they are receiving too much training. There can never be too much training.
Perhaps the basis of some union leader's discomfort is that the department has provided sufficient resources and there is little or no excuse left for not fully serving the public.
I have sincere respect for the function of the unions. As a career police officer, who has moved through the ranks, I understand the role that police unions have in protecting the interests of the people they represent. However, this representation should be done with a clear understanding of the respective roles of both management and labor. Ideally, each party should have mutual respect for each other's position. Note that I am not saying they must agree – but TRUE leaders can always agree to disagree.
I believe a discussion of union concerns should be between the union and management. Instead, the community we are all sworn to serve becomes a leverage point and hostage to union demands. Should the community suffer because of the misguided opinions of a few?
There are a few union leaders who find it beneficial and self-serving to use their membership and status in the unions to create a perception of strife and friction in the Police Department. These individuals work overtime to foster the impression that the Office of the Police Commissioner is at odds with the unions and does not have the best interests of the employees at heart. Like viruses, they continue to infect the Police Department, looking for any opportunity to eat away at the integrity and character of this agency. A few bad apples are trying to spoil the whole barrel. I certainly believe that the vast majority of our hard working police officers and union members support the positive changes we have achieved together.
It appears that somewhere along the line some union leaders shifted their priorities. Their personal agendas (disguised as union leadership) became their first priority and the job of the police officer a distant second. Union leaders have the important task of representing the collective rights of their employees, a function we all understand and appreciate. However, the role of the unions is not to manage, micro-manage, or direct the organization. There should be a clear line of demarcation as to where union business ends and management prerogative begins.
The union's proper function is to protect the rights of its members and to negotiate for their members a fair and equitable contract for the performance of services. This equitable contract dictates that they will be compensated at an agreed upon level for the performance of services. Management only wants to obtain the performance that the contract requires and the public deserves. In this context, it would appear that the "problems" some union leaders have with VIPD management stem from management holding the unions and their members accountable and responsible for their performance and their actions. If I am being accused of demanding performance and accountability, then I am guilty as charged!
When did accountability, responsibility, and performance of duty become fighting words? What everyone should be trying to achieve is a Police Department where policy is established by this department and members are held accountable for complying with policy. At the very least, it is what this community deserves.
Respectfully, Elton Lewis

Editor's note: Elton Lewis is the Police Commissioner of the Virgin Islands.

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