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On the Beat from Across the Sea: Police Recruiting Efforts Circle Globe

Jan. 28, 2008 — While the local police department continues the search for new recruits within the territory, a pressing need for "more feet on the street" has spurred efforts to bring in at least 100 new officers from off-island, ranging from Australia to the U.S. mainland.
"What we're doing in terms of the recruitment process is laterally transferring officers from other jurisdictions," said VIPD recruiter Emmett Hansen III during a recent telephone interview. "It allows us to have the luxury, for once, of choosing from a pool of experienced, certified persons who can come to the Virgin Islands and step in immediately, providing much-needed assistance and training to some of our officers."
Over the past few months, Hansen said, advertisements placed in major police publications have stirred up some heavy support for the recruitment effort, bringing in interest from officers of all different ranks and skill sets. However, not everyone that applies will be brought on board, he added.
"We're seeing a range of experience in our applicants," Hansen explained. "From people who are 30 to 40 years old to people who just want to get into policing and want to raise their families in the Virgin Islands. But we're not going to be taking everyone that applies — we have such a great pool that we can pick and choose those individuals who can really fill the void in the Virgin Islands, and be an asset to the department and the community. And this is the first time in VIPD history that we've had such an availability of bodies and talent — enough to say that we'll be able to finally throw expertise and training at our problems."
Painting a vivid picture of the crime concerns that have recently wracked the local community, Hansen underscored that "violent acts" — including a record 44 homicides in the territory during 2007 — are at an all-time high. To temper the numbers, he said, VIPD finally has to fill the critical staffing vacancies it has had for the past few years.
"The world has caught up with the Virgin Islands," he said. "We're experiencing crimes at a frequency that we have never experienced before. A lot of it seems so vicious and senseless. And because the crimes have gotten more serious, our response has to keep up with the crimes. These individuals can help us in various specialized areas, such as forensics, which has really become a star in terms of investigations."
While the department has been trying out other initiatives — such as bringing on retired police officers to fill out the ranks or making plans to reinstate the police auxiliary force — government officials have made no secret about their priorities for the department. In his recent State of the Territory Address, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said his administration is "tackling" the islands' crime issues in a "number of ways," including the implementation of roadblocks, traffic stops and increased camera surveillance.
However, the "lack of bodies where we need them" continues to be one of the department's biggest hindrances, the governor said, contributing to a lag in response time when calls come in.
During a recent interview, deJongh explained that bringing in officers from off-island was one of the fastest ways to solve the manpower problem. Seeking support from the department's rank-and-file employees, meetings were also head with various union members to discuss issues such as how, and on what level, the VIPD's newest employees — who may be coming in with several years of service under their belts — would be compensated when they transfer in.
"We wanted the unions to feel comfortable that we weren't just trying to inject new people into the system," the governor said. "But I think it's evident that we've reached the point where we were in a limited pool, and we needed to broaden our horizons in terms of expanding the police force. Also, we need to be able to say that we can honor the years of service that these officers have in another jurisdiction, and pay them accordingly. And I think we've been able to reach that point with the unions."
Funding already included in the department's budget for vacant positions will go to subsidize the "new hires," deJongh said.
"That's why we fought so hard not to have those positions eliminated," he added. "Now everything is in place for us to make an impact."
Public Support and Suggestions
It's going to take some time for these transfers to come on board, Police Commissioner James H. McCall said during a recent interview. In addition to undergoing a thorough background check, potential hires would have to tender their resignation to their current employers — a process that could between 90 and 120 days, he said.
Meanwhile, news of the department's recruitment efforts has been met with support from several sectors of the community, from the Legislature to the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.
Last year, the push for police reform came early from the Senate, with Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe introducing a comprehensive crime bill designed to bring the department more funding and manpower. However, Dowe nixed a section of the bill that authorized the department to bring in off-island officers and give them signing bonuses as an incentive for joining the local police force.
"We didn't get the kind of support overall for that section o the bill, and I didn't want to sacrifice everything by getting bogged down in arguments," Dowe said during a recent interview. "So I thought I would bring a separate piece of legislation to make sure we're doing everything we need to do to support the department. I'm definitely in support of bringing in officers from off-island, and I've said time and time again that there are a couple of major police departments offering signing bonuses so people can come in and help alleviate the kind of staffing shortages that are being felt worldwide."
On the local level, the department has exhausted all efforts to bring in more officers from the territory, according to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. Many recruits fail to pass the department's entrance exam, leaving the VIPD shorthanded once again, the senator told the Source recently.
"I have even thought of hanging up my hat in the Senate and coming back into the department on a management level to offer my support," said White, a former police chief. "We'll see what happens. But these transfers are needed — we need to put more boots on the ground and help get some of this crime down."
Though the head of the Law Enforcement Supervisor's Union said that a few unresolved issues — such as the successful negotiation of a new collective-bargaining agreement — still stand, he acknowledged that the department is in dire need of more officers.
"We still need to make sure that we can provide for the officers that are still here, though," said LESU president Joseph A. Gumbs. "We want to make sure that they are taken care of in terms of compensation and other items that should be covered under a collective-bargaining agreement."
While Gumbs suggested that the department turn to local high schools and University of the Virgin Islands campuses in both districts to stir up some new prospects, representatives from the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce said that the implementation of a territory-wide surveillance system could help augment the police force if its numbers continue to be down.
"This is a great initiative, but it's probably going to be very difficult to do from an economic standpoint," said Barry Broom, president of ADT Virgin Islands and head of the Chamber's crime committee. "Getting the officers to move down may be problematic, for example, since most stateside officers are used to m
aking more than we offer. But it's something that the police have got to try to do — right now the department says they need about 400 officers per town, but they've only got about 250. Here we don't have a large pool to pull from, so we have to bring some extra help from off-island. The key, though, is to find people who can fill some specialty areas, such as forensics, so they can fill some areas that are lacking."
In the meantime, federal funding is available to subsidize a city, or island-wide, camera system that, if put in place, could be monitored by civilians or available officers, he added.
"That way, we could put another 100 officers — their eyes, anyway — on the street," Broom said. "The civilians could be supervised by people from the department, and I think other groups would be interested in participating. There are a whole host of mechanisms already in place to get funding for this, and it's not going to be anywhere near as expensive as hiring new officers."
While deJongh listed increased camera surveillance as one of the department's planned initiatives, he also stressed the need to increase the visibility of officers throughout the local community.
"It's not the same as having regular police out there," he said during a recent interview. "We want the visibility of someone walking in a neighborhood, not to have a special task force or anything like that. It's an important thing in terms of getting more manpower — the people need to see the police out there, doing things that will protect the people of the Virgin Islands and make them feel safe."
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