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HomeNewsArchivesSenate Committee Lays Down the Law Before Approving Police Commissioner

Senate Committee Lays Down the Law Before Approving Police Commissioner

March 19, 2007 — Before accepting the designated police commissioner's nomination Monday, members of a senate committee said he must take immediate action to reduce rising crime levels, solve long-standing problems with the V.I. Police Department and change the community's perception of law-enforcement officials.
The Senate's Rules and Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of James H. McCall as commissioner, but only after a five-hour hearing in which committee members aired concerns and demanded changes.
Speaking candidly, McCall said he has similar goals in mind, and expects to turn the department around "within a year." His plans include addressing a consistent manpower shortage; working closely with other administrative officials, such as the two newly appointed district police chiefs; mending the "rift" between the St. Thomas and St. Croix departments; and reducing the number of homicides throughout the territory.
"If I can't do that, then I don't need to be here — I need to pack my bags," McCall said.
Senators said they would hold McCall to the one-year timetable. "Otherwise, I will be the first person going to the governor, saying that Commissioner McCall isn't going to work out and needs to be replaced," said committee Chairman Carlton Dowe.
McCall got pelted with a number of similar comments throughout the five-hour meeting, as senators laid out a plethora of issues currently plaguing the community. Some said they were concerned about the fact there is a lack of police presence on the streets, while other said they were becoming increasingly concerned about the number of weapons, drugs and illegal immigrants passing through the territory.
Senators also queried McCall on how government funds were being expended by the department, how officers were being promoted and whether McCall has begun addressing a number of grievances filed against the VIPD by members of the police unions.
McCall said he has already requested that the Office of the Inspector General conduct an independent audit to determine the status of various federal and local-government allotments. McCall added that he will also personally review cases in which officers have been suspended — in some cases for up to six years — but still collect government paychecks.
Once such officer, Sgt. Jerome Blyden, testified toward the end of Monday's hearing, saying no one told him why he got suspended in February 2004. Blyden said he had recently asked McCall for reinstatement, but was told that he could not come back to the department.
Initially several criminal charges were pending against Blyden, McCall said, adding that during a recent visit Blyden threatened to "do whatever it takes to bring down the entire Police Department if he didn't get what he wants."
Blyden said the matter is currently in arbitration before the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB).
Earlier in the meeting, McCall said that a new attorney was recently hired by the department to handle grievances pending at PERB.
When discussing the department's promotional structure, McCall said that he will make the final decisions when it comes to the selection of both district and deputy police chiefs. Final selections will be made after the prospective candidates go through a "vetting process" that includes extensive background checks various psychological tests, he said.
Additionally, the process by which corporals are appointed within the department is currently under review, due to a request from the Office of Collective Bargaining and the local attorney general's office, McCall said. If given the chance, he said, he would not allow scoring on a curve for officers taking exams to determine promotions to higher-ranking positions.
McCall said he was unable to move forward with various initiatives under the administration of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. When he came to the department in 2004 as the assistant commissioner, McCall said, he was "disappointed" to find that he was being "systematically restricted" and excluded from meetings within the department.
But now he says he is ready to move forward with a range of new activities and improvements. They include sending officers away for training, hiring a recruiter for the department to build the ranks of the police force and improving the territory's obsolete 911 system.
The Public Finance Authority will provide $1.2 million to correct the 911 system's current problems, McCall said. However, the department will need an additional $1.4 million to "make sure the system continues to run," he said.
The department has many needs, McCall added. As usual, the VIPD suffers from a severe manpower shortage along with a lack of equipment and financial support. However, senators said that at least one bill is currently in the hopper to put 250 officers on the streets and establish a witness-protection program, among other things.
Senators said they also were also concerned about the community's perception of the department. Sen. Liston Davis said that the lack of public trust stems, in part, from the fact that a number of officers face investigation for criminal charges. Citizens are also wary because a number of officers have been charged with assault or domestic violence, added Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft.
"What I need to hear from you, and what I think the community needs to hear from you, is that there's a new sheriff in town. That the days of old are gone and there will be a blind enforcement of the law no matter what," said Sen. Basil Ottley Jr.
McCall said he shared the concerns, and is presently in the process of revamping the department's internal-affairs division, tasked with investigating charges brought against police officers. Hiring an attorney to head the division would bring a level of "credibility" to the department, he said.
The department needs two additional attorneys to work with prosecutors from the Department of Justice so cases can move more efficiently after arrests are made, McCall said.
"Given the opportunity, I think you'll begin to see more changes within the department," he added.
Voting in favor of McCall's nomination to the post of police commissioner was Dowe, along with Sens. Shawn Michael-Malone, James Weber III, Wesselhoft and Alvin Williams.
Sens. Usie R. Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. voted against the nomination.
McCall's nomination will come up for a final vote during a Senate session scheduled for Tuesday.
Also present during Monday's meeting were non-committee members Davis, Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville and Ottley.
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