With 48 murders so far this year and 3-1/2 months to go, the Virgin Islands is on track to be among the three most homicidal places in the United States in 2009. This while once hopeless-seeming cities like Newark, N.J. have cut murder rates in half in just a few years, and across the country homicide and manslaughter fell by nearly 4 percent in 2008, according to crime data released last week by the FBI.
Why is the V.I., then, competing for the dubious honor of 2009 murder capital of the U.S.? While in the past, murder rates have been more nearly equal between the St. Croix district and St. Thomas/St. John district, starting in 2007 St. Thomas district has grown more and more violent, accounting for 30 of the 47 murders so far this year.
Everyone wants that to change, but what to do? Take to the streets with pitchforks and torches? Cower at home, adding deadbolts and security cameras? Buy a dog?
More effective policing is one side of the coin, but preventing young men from growing up to be violent criminals is the other side. For both of these, many of the pieces are already in place, but need more support. With some of the pieces the territory is drifting further afield.
Violence starts at home
Kathryn Seifert, a forensic psychologist and expert on the links between childhood trauma and later violence, said getting everyone in the community involved at some level, and providing young men with better, more socially valuable ways to express their need to be someone are key.
Violence at home combined with incomplete education and a lack of coping skills leads to violent behavior, Seifert said in a recent interview with the Source.
"The most salient factor appears to be abuse, neglect, and/or exposure to violence resulting in a failure to develop essential coping skills," said Seifert, the author of the award-winning book “How Children Become Violent.” "If we allow children to be mistreated, they will not gain the skills they need to cope with life and relationships appropriately."
Just back from a conference in Italy on the topic, Seifert said experts worldwide agree "child protective services feed the criminal justice system."
Those who drop out of school are at special risk.
"Without success in school and without lots of peers who are on the right path, these youth are left without a legitimate path to success," she said. "This can result in the joining of a gang where they can experience a form of power, she said.
"Others may become loners who seek power in dominating, harming, or killing others," she said. Gangs especially giving dropouts a path for anti social group activity and a way to be admired by others, she said.
Virgin Islands Police Commissioner Novelle Francis takes a very similar view to Seifert’s.
"Kids are attracted to gangs because they offer something to belong to," Francis said Monday. "In their way, gangs offer these kids love and attention. So we are trying to come up with alternative programs and provide some positive group they can belong to as well; not just arresting gang bangers, but also giving them some alternative."
Looking for answers
So what can be done?
"Day care with parent involvement and home visitor programs are great prevention programs," Seifert said.
Once kids have already dropped out, adults need "to offer a path to be successful, learn a trade, do something well," she said. "Counselors can help youth accomplish this."
"These are not cheap," Seifert said. "What we need to convince people is that it is cheaper to do this than build more and more jails."
Here in the Virgin Islands, there are already programs like this, but resources are tight. What can be done without spending more money? Seifert says even a single person can have a dramatic effect if they simply get involved and do the right things.
"There was a study done of a community in New York City where the expectation was none of the kids would go to college," she said. "But all of a sudden, the numbers turned around and 60 to 75 percent started graduating and going to college, so they looked into what was happening. It turned out one community worker was the common factor among all those kids being successful. So one person can make a difference."
After school programs, martial arts, sports and other activities all can help. Getting as much of the community involved as possible is the key, she said.
"Adults have to give guidance to young people, mentoring really does work," she said. "It doesn’t cost a lot of money but it takes people in the community willing to spend time with the kids and give them some skills to deal with their stress and encouragement for finishing high school."
While not everyone can spend the time to mentor or donate to civic organizations and so on, everyone can try to do something, however small, and if everyone does, the situation will improve, she said.
Better cops and communities
Looking at the enforcement side of the coin, Newark, N.J., and Richmond, Va. have both seen stunning declines in violent crime that they attribute to improved policing.
A city of 280,000 across the Hudson River from New York, Newark averaged 90 killings a year from 1985 to 2005, but has seen sharp declines in each year since. Newark has seen a 51 percent cut in homicides since 2006 and Mayor Cory Booker reports on his website that from January to May of this year, they have had 14 — the fewest homicides over the same time frame since 1959.
Booker credits some basic changes in policing, better cooperation with the community and with federal law enforcement, vigorous investigation of corruption by the city’s inspector general — and also the use of innovative technology.
Booker and Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy have redeployed officers to street patrol, particularly from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, when crime is most likely to occur. The percentage of police officers working weekday shifts has fallen from 60 percent to 37 percent since 2006.
They’ve also beefed up their ranks with a Senior Police Academy, forged an alliance with local clergy and set up an anonymous phone tip line that pays $1,000 and $500 rewards for information that leads to arrests and indictments.
Some of these types of programs are being tried in the territory too, with mixed results so far. Simply getting more police on the street will help a lot, Francis said.
Filling the ranks
He would like to see about 775 officers, territory-wide, while right now the department has in the neighborhood of 525 officers. While it has been difficult going, with many applicants failing the police entrance exam or the background checks, there has been some success, and St. Thomas right now has a class of 25 cadets in training – the St. Thomas academy’s largest class ever, Francis said. And ironically, more officers are actually inexpensive.
"I don’t think funding for officers is an issue at this point because we have very high overtime costs and hiring would reduce overtime," Francis said.
A new junior police cadet program offering incentives for young men and women to pursue criminal justice at the University of the Virgin Islands has been very successful, but the program is new and it will be several more years before the young cadets begin filling the ranks of the police, Francis said.
The different experiences of St. Croix and St. Thomas offer lessons in how to move forward too, he said.
"Speaking just about homicide, on St. Croix, the resolution rate is much higher than the territory as a whole," he said. "For the territory as a totality, the homicide resolution rate is between 30 and 35 percent, but on St. Croix, it is 60 to 68 percent."
Police on the big island have been getting more cooperation from the community, leading to more arrests, which Francis said at least partly explains the lower level of violent crime on St. Croix versus St. Thomas. Also, the anonymous tip line, CrimeStoppers USVI at 1-800-222-Tips, offering cash rewards for information, was set up and publicized first for St. Croix, and has helped solve cases, he said. Now that it is being promoted on St. Thomas, he’s hoping for more success there too.
Police footwork has helped on St. Croix too, he said, with quick lab work on DNA and ballistics, and timely follow-up by detectives.
On St. Thomas, residents often seem to be more reluctant to come forward with information, Francis said. And the sheer number of homicides recently on St. Thomas has created its own problem, hampering police efforts too.
"I think there is a certain amount of burnout, with St. Thomas officers responding to almost double the number of calls than St. Croix receives," he said.
Teamwork and technology
Back in New Jersey, McCarthy credited improved coordination between the Newark Police Department and other county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, something Francis said he’d like to see more of here as well.
"With the limited workforce we have, we should join forces to assist each other," he said. "I have no heartburn regarding federal assistance."
Granting federal officials peace officer status to enforce local laws is not something he would support, but he would like a stronger partnership, he said.
Newark also credits new technology, including the deployment of 109 surveillance cameras, more computers, the use sophisticated crime analysis software and sonic gunshot detectors that can locate the source of a weapon being fired.
In many ways, the V.I. Police Department is trying to move in similar directions. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis says the police department has already purchased a number of cameras.
"We have the cameras, and are waiting for ADT, the vendor, to take care of installing them," Francis said Tuesday. "We’re hoping to have them up within 60 to 90 days," he said.
They are to replace some ineffective existing cameras, go in high-crime areas and in traffic bottlenecks, where drivers are forced through a single route, Francis said. The new cameras are digital, and can be monitored online from many locations, rather than solely from a dedicated location inside a police station.
Francis wants to purchase sonic gunshot detectors too.
"We’ve been doing some research and have been reading about some success stories in places stateside that are using them," he said. "They run in the neighborhood of almost $250,000 for each unit, so they are pretty expensive. I’m pursuing some funding right now, for one in the St. Croix district and one in the St. Thomas district, and then look at maybe expanding in the future."
Shifting the tide
Stronger policing of all the laws, especially traffic infractions, can help too, Francis said. By stopping people for speeding, expired inspections, running red lights and so on, officers get a chance to look around a bit and see if there is probable cause for more investigation. And if young toughs know the police are out there and will be poking their heads into the car, they will leave the guns at home, reducing a lot of retaliatory gun violence and opportunistic crime, he hopes.
Retaliatory violence is a major cause of homicides, and in many cases, tragedy could be prevented if police and the courts step in firmly, right away, Francis believes.
"We have seen a record number of these retaliatory shootings," he said. "In nine out of 10 cases, we are finding it is not random, but there was some previous violence leading up to it."
When the courts release someone who is charged with murder, they, along with their family members and friends, become targets for retaliation, so they are actually safer in jail than on the streets, he said.
No one tack will solve the problem, but the V.I. doesn’t have to vie with New Orleans and Camden, N.J., for the title of U.S. murder capital. With greater community cooperation, innovative use of technology, steadily adding to the number of police officers on the street, along with a stronger emphasis on the main deterrents to young people engaging in crime — education, job opportunities, positive alternatives to gangs — the Virgin Islands can push back the tide of violence just as cities like Newark, Richmond and others have done.