March 12, 2003 – "It's time to get serious about crime" was the mantra repeated by Police Department union leaders on Wednesday afternoon during the second installment of a Senate hearing to investigate the reasons crime on St. Croix seems to run rampant.
And just as in the previous day's proceedings of the new Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, police brass cited funding needs as critical to the department's success.
The incoming president of the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union, Sgt. Arthur Hector, and the outgoing president, Lt. Romeo Christopher, as well as Sgt. Thomas Hannah and the Police Benevolent Association president, Detective Naomi Joseph, each took a turn giving senators a no-holds-barred account of the problems plaguing the department on St. Croix.
Hector told the senators: "I've been before the Senate numerous times. Every time I come before this body. it goes to deaf ears. We've never been able to get the resources we need to properly run the Police Department the way it needs to be run."
Communications technology shortcomings, unsavory working conditions, low morale, an unsupportive community and insufficient staff were all problems cited by the officers.
Hector first pointed to inadequate communication capability among officers. He said he is skeptical about whether a new communications tower reportedly in the works will ever come to fruition.
"It's a big problem throughout the island," he said. "There are times when officers can't hear each other, and this is something that should've been fixed years ago."
As time has passed, Hector said, equipment costs have only gone up. "We need to get serious," he said. "If you're serious about fighting crime and serious about helping the Police Department, then senators along with the governor need to act serious and do something for us. It's totally ridiculous that we're coming before the Senate all the time."
Hannah echoed Hector's concerns about rising costs and a shrinking budget for the department. He said to outfit police properly with new holsters alone would cost around $500,000 and that the ones they are using now are at least five years old. He said the cost of all police supplies has skyrocketed in recent years, while the operating budget for the department has shrunk yearly, from $44 million in 1992 to $38 million now.
"You talk about wanting police service to be effective and efficient and changed," Hannah said. "Then get off the money and stop playing around with it."
Christopher said the cutbacks also are part of the reason morale is so low in the department. "It hurts my heart," he said. "It's like a slap in the face to come back and we've got a next cut this year. No money equals no improvement; that's what you're telling me."
Community contempt for police and an unwillingness to help solve crimes causes distress among the ranks, the officers told the committee.
"The community continues to cry out against crime waves, and to demand more of us and the police officers on the street," Hector said, "but nothing is being done to help us get the job done."
Hannah said crime is a not a Police Department problem, but a community problem. He said officers risk their lives daily protecting the islands. "It's a societal problem that starts in the home and moves to the school and goes forward," he said.
At Tuesday's meeting, Police Commissioner Franz Christian said out of 128 murders in the territory over the last four years, 56 have led to arrests. But despite those figures, Hannah said, the Virgin Islands has a higher clearance rate for murder cases than 99 major stateside cities. He said crimes involving gangs or drugs are almost impossible to solve.
"Street crimes are extremely difficult to solve," he said. "The culture that exists with that — they're not going to talk to you."
Joseph, too, said tight lips at crime scenes make clearing gang or drug-related violent crimes difficult. "It upsets me going to a crime scene. You approach people and ask did they see anything did they hear anything no, no, no."
A new police station would go a long way to improve morale, Hannah said. Referring to the Motor Vehicle Bureau, he said: "They want them to smile and give good service, when they just walked over a centipede on the floor."
Joseph said the Patrick Sweeney Headquarters is in deplorable condition, and commands are as well, without basic supplies such as toilet paper and drinking water. "I think the headquarters is supposed to be reflective of what we are as a Police Department," she said.
And the V.I. Justice Department has become a "revolving door" for criminals, Joseph said. "Anybody can walk in and beat the Attorney General's Office," she said. The same criminals are repeating the same crimes, she said, and are generally released on a technicality, only to be rearrested.
"We know each other on a first-name basis," she said of the repeat offenders. "I have regular customers. We're arresting people every single day, and they're plea bargaining every day."
But once the committee's question-and-answer period got under way, the buck was passed again to the executive branch. Sen. Carlton Dowe said the 24th Legislature appropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific Police Department improvements, much of which has not made its way there.
"When the Office of Management and Budget doesn't release the money, we have to ask, 'Where are our priorities?'" Dowe said. He said private-sector growth and development would help bring in the needed money to address police concerns.
"The Legislature has a role in appropriations or the creation of a new law, but the execution of it is up to the administrative branch," he said.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd shared Dowe's sentiments. "Many of those things you talked about," he told the witnesses, "you'll find and least tried to be addressed by this institution."
Liburd, who was the Senate president last term, added: "If the governor is serious about crime, he would order the OMB director to release the funds."
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry, who chairs the new committee, noted that it is scheduled to meet again on March 26 on St. Thomas.
Committee members present were Sens. Berry, Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, David Jones, Liburd and Ronald Russell. One non-committee member, Sen. Louis Hill, also was present.
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