April 10, 2003 – The governor's nomination of Elton Lewis to become Police commissioner made its way through a Senate Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday with mounting approval, not the least of which was from his ex-wife, a master sergeant in the V.I. National Guard, and from his teen-age stepdaughter.
Lewis brought the Police Department top brass with him, and the gallery was filled with police officers from throughout the territory. About 15 people testified in his behalf — including police personnel and representatives of two St. Croix civic organizations and the National Guard. They painted a picture of a tough, no-nonsense officer with a strong sense of duty and organization, and one who will make changes.
In a letter to Sen. Roosevelt David, Rules Committee chair, V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt said that Lewis was the lead officer in the Police Internal Affairs unit "in one of the largest and most complicated white-collar cases this office has ever conducted." He said Lewis's reputation is "impeccable" and that he is the "most qualified man in the Virgin Islands" to lead the Police Department.
Perhaps the most moving testimony was that of Lewis's 17-year-old stepdaughter, Mariska Richards. "The Salem witch trials happened hundreds of years ago," she said, "but we have a similar situation now in the 21st century."
The teen-ager asked the senators not to be influenced by a 10-year-old police report of an incident in which no charges were ever filed. She said her stepfather has been "the epitome of a loving and caring husband and father figure for my mother and me. He has been a role model for us."
Three agencies dealing with domestic violence had expressed concern to David in a letter about the 1993 domestic violence complaint filed by Lewis's his ex-wife. The letter said the Women's Coalition of St. Croix has "received numerous complaints from people in the territory" concerned about Lewis's nomination to become police commissioner. (See "Lewis may face grilling on domestic incident".)
Sen. Lorraine Berry provided testimony which may have proven pivotal. "As the only female senator," she said, "I am sensitive to women and children's needs. I am unconditionally opposed to domestic violence. Some women's groups approached me with their concerns, and I have done a thorough investigation.
"I have spoken with former Commissioner Ramon Davila and Delroy Richards, Lewis's supervisors, and they indicated that Lewis would be the best commissioner we have had in many years." And, she continued, "they said he is aggressive enough to clean up our crime."
Ex-wife's strong endorsement cited
Then, Berry said, "I talked with his ex-wife, Willette Lewis. She said they have both moved on with their respective lives. She indicated that, after living in the Virgin Islands for the past 20 years, she felt she had to give something back to her adopted community."
According to Berry, Willette Lewis said that her ex-husband "is the best individual for this job; he is a man who can and will clean up these Virgin Islands. By appointing him for Police commissioner, we can make a positive change to get rid of the criminal element." Berry said Willette Lewis concluded: "Let's make a change by putting the right man in the job, and the right man is Elton Lewis."
Berry also said she met with Lewis and asked him about the allegations. She said his response was: "It was an unfortunate incident. It's between my wife and myself, and it's personal privacy."
When she asked him if he had been charged in the incident, Lewis replied: "The short answer is no. The longer one is that I was investigated by local and federal authorities. I hold top secret security clearances with the U.S. State Department [diplomatic security], the FBI and the Department of Defense."
Berry further asked him if he could work with the women's groups without problem, and if he could take a lead in addressing domestic violence in the territory. "I am an enforcer," Lewis answered. "I will work with any advocacy group — women's, elderly … We won't always agree, but I will make the best possible decision."
Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards asked Lewis if he was aware of a $250,000 contract for the Police Department to provide services at Juan F. Luis Hospital. Lewis said he wasn't aware of a contract but indicated he was aware of a police presence there.
Franz Christian, who was relieved of duties as Police commissioner by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in March, had acknowledged last year that he moonlighted as a paid security officer at the St. Croix hospital.
Richards asked Lewis what the Legislature could do to help him. "Funding issues," Lewis responded. Lewis also said he wanted an immediate promotional exam administered. Some officers have been in the same positions for years, he said, and "if they are non-productive, they need to move on."
Although the St. Croix police officers and union representatives who testified on Thursday were unanimous in their approval of Lewis, it was thought by some — and Lewis himself has said — that there has been grumbling in the St. Thomas-St. John district ranks about his nomination. He said in his testimony Wednesday that he was aware of disparity between police on St. Thomas and St. Croix. "We need to bring this back together immediately," he said.
Aaron Krigger, president of the Police Benevolent Association for St. Thomas-St. John, was in the gallery, but he did not offer public comment.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., a former St. Thomas police chief, told Lewis:, "If any group fails to testify, that means they are against you." No members of any of the domestic violence intervention agencies — the Women's Coalition, Family Resource Center on St. Thomas and Safety Zone on St. John — had offered comment. White spotted Iris Kern, Safety Zone executive director, in the audience. When he asked if she wanted to testify, Kern demurred, saying she had no prepared statement.
After some cajoling by White, however, Kern came forward. In response to his questions, she said she was concerned because of the police report she had read of the 1993 domestic violence complaint. The three support groups "came together to raise our concern," she said. "I don't know about Lewis's image on potential victims."
Asked by White to elaborate, she said victims of domestic violence might be afraid to come forth if they perceive the Police commissioner as having been involved in domestic violence.
White pointed out the report was not conclusive. "They say my son killed some white people in Bordeaux four years ago," he said. He told Kern: "You must determine if it [the domestic violence allegation] occurred."
White asked Kern if she had read Lewis's resume. She said she had not, but that Lewis's background raises a cloud, "and it would be better with no cloud."
Sgt. Thomas Hannah, Police Department public affairs officer, offered what he described as his "unsolicited" comment. "There has been divisiveness for too long," he said. "Let's put false impressions to rest." He said after only two weeks with Lewis in charge as acting commissioner, a change at Patrick Sweeney Headquarters on St. Croix is evident.
"The halls still smell," he said, "but you see names above each door. When I walk down the halls now, it's not 'Hey Tom'; it's 'Hello, Sgt. Hannah.'" It is those little things, he said, which instill discipline and respect within an agency.
Nominee pledges 'polished professionals'
In his own testimony, Lewis told
the senators: "I intend to regain the community's trust in the department's ability to effectively safeguard the citizenry. In short, I aim to transform from what the public perceives to be a group of tattered, undisciplined and uncaring officers to a regiment of highly trained, polished professionals. 'To protect and serve' will once again become the order of the day."
He cited his extensive background in military, federal and local police work. He said the Police Department is a paramilitary organization, and it "is vital that prescribed rules and regulations be adhered to."
This point of view is said by some to be a sticking point with police officers who might object to stern discipline.
Lewis said he would "re-deploy" officers based on training, specialties and experience, and said that doing so could help to "alleviate a significant portion of the manpower problem we are faced with." Since his appointment as acting commissioner a little over two weeks ago, he said, he has implemented a crime-reduction initiative, a "street enforcement team," aimed at reducing crime in "hot" areas.
So far, he said, the unit has produced 21 arrests and assisted in 14 others ranging from possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute to unauthorized possession of firearms. It has executed several felony warrants, as well, he said, and has confiscated about $15,000 worth of cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana, and recovered six weapons including a machine gun.
Lewis in recent years has been a special investigator with the U.S. State Department, the FBI and other federal agencies. Before that, he served 20 years in the VIPD, rising in the ranks from patrolmen to Internal Affairs Division director, chief of detectives, deputy chief and chief of police for the St. Croix district. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Colleges, and of Roger Williams University. He is currently enrolled in a master's degree program through the University of Phoenix.
He holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and troop commander in the V.I. National Guard and received accolades for his performance from Adj. Gen. Cleave McBean, head of the National Guard. Eddy Charles, director of the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, told the senators: "I am Lewis's commander in the National Guard. He is the man. He will regain the respect of the community and the rank and file, and control the local Taliban on the street."
Rules Committee members present Thursday and all voting for Lewis's confirmation were Sens. Berry, David, Douglas Canton, Carlton Dowe, Louis Hill, David Jones, and Ronald Russell. Sens. Richards and White, also present, are not members of the committee.
After the committee approved Lewis's nomination, Jones, the Senate president, said he will place it on the agenda for final approval in the full Senate session scheduled for April 14-15.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.