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VIPD Top Official Gets Candid on Crime

Oct. 4, 2004 – The Virgin Islands is experiencing what one top police official has described as a "transitional crime wave." Territorial Police Chief Novelle Francis Jr. said Sunday that the violent crime spree goes and comes from one island district to another and includes robberies, murders, home invasions and kidnappings.
Francis appeared on Public Television's "Behind the Headlines" program Sunday night and discussed a wide array of issues presently confronting the territory's primary law enforcement agency.
"You'll see that at a certain time of the year, there is an increase in a certain type of crime and at another time it moves from one island to the next," Francis said. On St. Croix he noted an increase in burglaries and home invasions but as police brought full force to bear on the perpetrators, "they moved from St. Croix and over to St. Thomas." In both island districts, he said, there is an effort to counteract the criminal activity. "We are now seeing a leveling off … even a calm in that type of crime." Francis warned that the frequency of crime often spikes during seasonal periods such as Christmas. "As we go into the holidays, we see that crime in general and certain types of crime take off on an upswing." He spoke of an increase in assaults, robberies and drive-by shootings. Francis also said that the public is justified in referring to the increased criminal activity, particularly violent crime, as a "continuing crime wave."
Francis admitted that the crime spree is taxing the resources of the V.I. Police Department, to the point where officials can no longer remain less than candid with the public about the department's ability to fight crime. "In St. Croix in particular, we have a low manpower level and every time we counteract these crime waves, we steal from Peter to pay Paul." Francis says the department has become more responsive than proactive as a result of the manpower woes. "We attack a certain area only to have the criminals move to another area," Francis said, adding that there is a definite need for the department to reassess its manpower strength and possibly reassign personnel. "The commissioner intends to create transparency in the department … if the community knows where our weaknesses are, I think they are more prone to work along with us. We cannot continue to minimize the challenges created by the low manpower strength."
Francis also said some of the same crimes that are reported in both districts are being perpetrated by the same suspects. "We saw a trend especially when the fast ferry was running and with the easy access on the seaplane, that there is pattern to the crimes occurring in both districts … by the same individuals." To address the manpower concerns in the department, Francis said additional training, recruiting of new officers and even a lateral transfer of officers from the mainland are options under review. "But the latter will require approval of the Legislature and the police unions." In earlier testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Elton Lewis, VIPD commissioner, pled with senators to increase the department's manpower by 100 officers in each district. Francis said the Criminal Investigation Bureau is one area in both districts that has suffered extensively. "We had a bureau at one point that was up to 43 detectives but we are now down to 10." He said every unit or bureau in the VIPD has been hit with a reduction in manpower.
Francis also said that in general, the department supports the creation of a Civilian Review Commission. He spoke of the critical need for the department to identify funds for the creation of a criminal laboratory in the territory. "It's extremely critical to have such a lab here. With the modern technology available we could resolve so many pending cases." The absence of a lab makes it difficult to process the cases. "We are heavily dependent on the FBI lab and we are in essence second and third priority in their eyes … given what's happening with the war and across America."
Francis said a typical lab analysis takes anywhere between six months and a year to process. "It's this caveat that allows criminals to become repeat offenders as they are left on the streets awaiting trial while our evidence is being processed." It is the lack of a crime lab facility and the generally slow process by which crime scene evidence is processed and analyzed that the department appeals frequently to the public for assistance in solving crimes. "It's a balancing act … the evidence and the witness testimony, they go hand in hand." The establishment of a crime lab for the VIPD in the territory remains a top priority. "We need either access to a crime lab even if in Puerto Rico or a laboratory in the territory to bring about a faster turn around on these cases, particularly the incidents of major crime."
Francis acknowledged that "a few calls" are coming in to the department in response to an appeal by the U.S. Marshal's office a few weeks ago for information on an organized crime ring known as "The Commission." At the time, authorities said the syndicate was based on St. Croix but had a presence in both St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands.
For obvious reasons, he provided few details about the information being gathered. "Some of the individuals are ex-cons … they met in a jail, they are now out and have organized 'The Commission.'" Francis said the intelligence points to the group's being responsible for crimes such as auto-thefts, murders and some "of the non-traditional crimes we have seen." As an example Francis noted an increase in incidents where vehicles were torched and persons suddenly have turned up missing. The most recent incident was on St. Croix where the burned remains of a man were found in the passenger seat of a burned-out sedan. "There is a strong local and federal effort to attack 'The Commission.'" Francis said appeals to the public for information on the crime syndicate will continue. He acknowledged what had been speculated about for some time, that members of the law enforcement community were involved in the organized crime ring. "So as a result, they [officials] are very careful about the information that is gathered and how it is processed." He said the department's goal is to elicit information from the public while at the same time "play our cards close to the chest … .let's just say, calls with information are being made." Persons with information should either contact the VIPD or the Marhsal's Office in either district.
"Behind the Headlines" will repeat on at 6 p.m. on Thursday Oct 7 WTJX-TV Channel 12.

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