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Guns, Gangs and Drugs to Blame for Rise in V.I. Crime Rate, Officials Say

Police Commissioner Novelle Francis addresses the senators during Thursday's hearing on V.I. crime.Senators and government officials meeting Thursday to discuss the rising rate of violent crime in the U.S. Virgin Islands put the finger on the traditional unholy trinity: guns, gangs and drugs.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes called a meeting of the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice to discuss the causes of violent crime. In 2009 the territory set a one-year record for homicides at 56, and this year is on pace to top that with 22 homicides in the territory through April 22. Representatives of the police, Department of Justice, Education, Parks and Recreation, and several community organizations all gathered in the Fritz Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room to offer their thoughts on what can be done to regain control.
Attorney General Vincent F. Frazer said there has been a 36-percent increase in the filing of felony cases in the territory in the last year.
“We find ourselves in a war to get violent individuals off the streets,” he said.
Many of the homicides seem to be disputes between rivals, with many of the victims themselves carrying unregistered and illegal weapons. Revenge shootings and turf wars seem to be the norm, he said.
“As we consider the identities of the homicide victims over the last year, we can be tempted to be complacent and say ‘Let the bad guys continue to kill each other,’" Frazer said, adding, "However, it would be irresponsible for us to become complacent because a life is lost and a family is set to mourn. Also, innocent persons can get killed in the crossfire of the many revenge killings that are going on on the streets of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John.”
He said drugs are the linchpin of the problem, because “where there are drugs, there are guns”; and gangs often organize to sell their wares, defending and trying to expand their territory.
The Department of Justice faces one challenge in prosecuting drug cases, Frazer said. The territory does not have its own lab to conduct drug analysis in a timely manner, depending instead on facilities in Puerto Rico. The long delays are a problem in a justice system that promises a swift trial.
“The judges of the Superior Court many times become impatient with us, and many times dismiss the drug cases rather than wait for the analysis to be done,” the attorney general said.
Gary Molloy, the insular superintendent for St. Croix public schools, noted that incidents of violence have increased on campuses over the last three years. In the 2007-08 school year, there were 49 incidents of weapon possession but no cases of weapon use. In 2008-09, those numbers had climbed to 48 and 5, respectively. This year, as of April 20, the schools have had 67 incidents of weapons possession and eight of weapons use.
The schools have launched a gang awareness educational campaign to show parents what to look for, and to bring gang-related activities to the attention of authorities. The schools are redesigning the alternative education program and bringing in more programs to make students both college- and career-ready upon graduating.
Police Commissioner Novelle Francis is reviewing and updating firearms licensing and registration policy and pursuing more stringent procedures for monitoring the transfer and reporting of weapons entering the territory. He said the department is also working with federal agencies to clamp down on the importation of illegal weapons into the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Francis told the senators he hopes to start an aviation division.
“I am convinced the time is ripe for the V.I. Police Department to have an aviation division, which would utilize a helicopter for enhanced surveillance,” he said, adding that it would also be helpful in search-and-rescue situations. The department has established a Tactical Anti-Gang Intervention Unit that is working on gang violence.
Francis added that something as routine as a traffic stop can have a big impact on getting control of crime.
“The return to basic policing practices ultimately impacts every aspect of law enforcement,” he said, “because we go to the criminal activity instead of waiting for it to come to us. Strict adherence to the traffic laws, as in the exercise of roadblocks and traffic stops,” has proven to be a valuable tool in removing guns and drugs from our streets, thereby reducing the capacity for violent crimes.”

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