Aug. 4, 2006–"We're fully aware of who committed the crimes in about half of the cases we're dealing with now," according to Police Commissioner Elton Lewis. "However, if we don't have people in the community willing to come forward with what they know, we're not going to be able to prove every single element of that case in a court of law."
During the second round of budget hearings Friday, Lewis and other VIPD representatives repeatedly stressed this point and said that V.I. residents–along with other government departments and agencies–have to adopt a more holistic approach to addressing and reporting incidents in order to stem the increase in violent crimes over the past six months.
Part of getting the community involved, however, is changing the public's perception of the department, Lewis said. In response to comments made by senators about the lack of respect displayed by officers to local residents, he added, "And part of doing that is changing the mind-set of some of our officers, so they know they have to display the proper attitude when dealing with our residents."
Despite the public's perception, however, VIPD officials said the number of "violent crimes," including homicides, have decreased by 39.5 percent over the past five years. "In fiscal year 2001, 5,749 violent crimes were reported," Riley Waugh, the department's federal grant manager, said. "When you compare that to the 3,477 crimes reported in 2005, you can see that there's been a decrease."
Waugh added that the number of homicides reported throughout the territory have also decreased since 2002, when 42 homicides were reported. "For 2005, 33 homicides were reported," he said. "This year, so far, it's 27."
While Lewis admitted that the number of violent crimes has recently increased, he explained that the VIPD has been working on "addressing the root cause" of the problem through various unspecified initiatives. Lewis said could not elaborate on these efforts "for security purposes."
However, he did say that the department is collaborating more with the federal government, along with other law enforcement agencies throughout the region.
During the meeting, Lewis also outlined the department's expenses and said that a General Fund budget request of $75.9 million initially submitted by VIPD for fiscal year 2007 was cut down to $45.6 million by the Office of Management and Budget–causing the department to once again ask senators for additional funding and more officers to fight crime throughout the territory.
While the General Fund recommendation submitted this year by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull represents a $3.8 million increase over last year's budget appropriation, documents submitted by the department indicate that VIPD will also be experience a $7.6 million reduction in federal funding, bringing the department's total operating budget to approximately $52 million for FY 2007–an overall budget decrease of approximately $4.7 million.
According to Waugh, federal funds coming through the Law Enforcement Planning Commission are being gradually reduced, due to national war efforts. And, while the department does still have some federal funding available from previous grant awards, the amount of new federal money coming in this year totals approximately $5 million, down from the $12.7 million estimated for FY 2006.
Lewis said the department has already submitted a $6 million supplemental budget to cover "critical" operations costs, including personnel expenses and funding for medical examinations for employees. "As I said at the same time last year, the VIPD has historically suffered under a handicap of inadequate funding," he said. "Over the course of the past year, our financial situation has not improved, despite some of the generous efforts of the Legislature."
To deal with the department's lack of manpower, Lewis said VIPD officials worked with OMB to determine the best use of funds line-itemed for personnel costs, which will go toward maintaining 592 filled positions, 121 vacancies, 2 temporary positions and 33 new positions along with overtime, holiday and night pay. According to Lewis' statement, 196 positions requested this year by the department, at a cost of approximately $6.3 million, were disallowed by OMB.
He said the department would need approximately 700 new positions (350 per district) in order to function at full capacity.
"We decided that new civilian positions should be funded to replace certain functions now being performed by regular officers, and return those regular officers to direct policing functions," Lewis explained. "Also, new positions were created to support existing operations in order to make them more effective, and allow our regular officers to address other critical issues."
New positions include a crime scene technician, intelligence agent, evidence custodian, human resources director, training director and public relations manager, among other things. Lewis said the department has also been internally promoting officers to fill vacant positions, along with training new classes of prospective officers. "Promotions alone, however, will not solve our manpower problems," Lewis said.
He explained that in addition to being hampered by the lack of funding, the department is also having difficulties recruiting new individuals. "Currently, the VIPD is unable to successfully recruit sufficient numbers of qualified applicants solely from within the territory, yet the process of hiring new employees is so convoluted and complex that it virtually eliminates the hiring of off-island candidates," he said.
Lewis explained that the department often receives requests from off-island officers interested in joining the VIPD. "These are officers who are already trained and experienced, who could be put on the street here with only minimal training unfortunately, we must tell them that we cannot offer lateral transfer or reciprocal recognition of their certificates, and that they must attend the full 26-week training academy in order to become a member of our department," he said. "We recommend that legislation be passed to deal with this issue."
Lewis added that trained officers from the mainland would be able to fill a void within the department, since they could "be on the street in a matter of weeks. He explained that it takes "about a year and a half" to complete on-the-job training for new recruits after they are hired.
However, the department is working on the implementation of other recruitment strategies–including sending officers out to local schools to talk to graduating seniors and making VIPD entrance examinations available on the mainland. These exams, which would be placed in V.I. Tourism Department offices in places such as New York and Georgia, could entice Virgin Islanders living on the mainland to come back home, Lewis said.
Present during Friday's meeting were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste and Usie R. Richards.
Sen. Neville James was absent.
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