August 21, 2004 – Despite public outcry over crime in the territory, a town hall meeting called by the V. I. Police Department Friday evening drew a crowd of less than two-dozen St. Thomas residents. The concerned few who did show up had the opportunity to question Police Commissioner Elton Lewis directly about what the department is doing to solve the problems.
The concerns of those gathered in the Charlotte Amalie High School auditorium ranged from vagrancy, prostitution and noise pollution, to a perceived reduction in the number of traffic stops and motorcycle patrols. While these and other topics were covered during the almost two-hour session, those who came looking for quick solutions probably left disappointed.
Citing a rash of crimes in the territory, Lewis explained the town hall meetings, which will be held on all three islands by month's end, are a way for the department to get input directly from the community. He also said that officers and top brass have been meeting with smaller focus groups in recent weeks for the same purpose.
Sgt. Thomas Hannah, public information officer and member of the force for 18 years, said that to the best of his knowledge this approach has never been tried before. He said the police have held meetings in the community but always to address specific issues. "We've never had this kind of open meeting," he said.
Lewis was joined on the auditorium stage by Hannah, James McCall, assistant commissioner; Matarangas King, assistant attorney general, who, as the department's legal counsel, helped field a number of questions; and Elvin Fahie, deputy chief. Seated in the audience were eight zone commanders and bureau chiefs, as well as a handful of rank and file officers.
Though disappointed by the turnout, Lewis had praise for those in attendance. "Everybody has an accountability for crime," Lewis told the small assembly, "but your contributions, your energy, your spirit are what will make the difference."
The meeting's tone was of mutual respect and there was no finger pointing or public blame. Lewis and his colleagues admitted the department suffers from a number of challenges, including: manpower, funding, training, technology and equipment.
On the other hand, few concrete solutions were offered. One woman said her neighborhood is plagued by the sounds of gunfire in the night, another said patrol officers have been ineffective in dealing with the homeless people who haunt the streets around her business. Lewis' answer to both was to "call the police," and when the frustrated questioners made it clear that they had, the answer became "we're working on that," or "we have set up a task force to address that."
King pointed to stiffer penalties, stronger laws and in some cases new laws altogether as the answer to public safety violators. Discussing prostitution, he admitted the department currently has no vice squad. "Prostitution is very difficult to prosecute if you don't have the resources to build a case."
Good news was offered to one speaker. She said she fears abandoned cars on her street left there for as long as three months are being used as caches for weapons. Darryl Lewis, a member of the governor's abandoned vehicles task force, stood up and explained that the collection of abandoned vehicles is going to start again soon. He took down her address and promised he would be out there to deal with the problem.
Lewis also offered a bright note in terms of the department's technological challenges. He said that in the coming months the force will begin implementing a smart zone system to allow for pinpoint tracking of police vehicles. He also said the department will soon have a teleconferencing center that will cut down on travel.
Lewis ended the session with a word of caution in regard to a recent spat of home invasions. He said local and federal authorities have been investigating cases on St. Croix and St. John and they've discovered a link to illegal aliens used as cheap labor by homeowners looking to save a buck. There are street corners, he said, where undocumented workers will gather and wait to be picked up by local residents and given a day's work. "They're casing these people's homes and neighborhoods and coming back and robbing them," Lewis said.
Hannah promised that the town hall meetings would be ongoing. "We are going to do this continually," Hannah said. He explained that the current plan is to hold meetings every three months on all three islands.
Hannah also said that residents with concerns don't have to wait for the next meeting to air them. He encourages Virgin Islanders to call the commissioner or himself. He said it might take a few days, but that they will answer all phone calls. Hannah can be reached at 778-2211, ext. 4515. Lewis can be reached on St. Thomas at 774-2310, and on St. Croix at 778-2211, ext. 4501.
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