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Police Pledge Action at Town Meeting

Feb. 5, 2009 — Close down the loud strip club, get rid of abandoned cars and take control of the streets so the sound of gunfire stops ringing through the air every night, folks told Police Department brass Thursday evening at a town meeting at the Eulalie Rivera Professional Development Elementary School in Grove Place.
It was the first in a series of town meetings the police plan to hold throughout the Virgin Islands over the course of the year, said V.I. Police Department Public Information Officer Melody Rames, who introduced all the speakers and moderated the discussion.
Police Commissioner James H. McCall, Assistant Commissioner Novelle Francis and St. Croix Chief of Police Oakland Benta spoke to the crowd of about 60 residents of Croixville, Lorraine Village, Mutual Homes, Grove Village and other western St. Croix neighborhoods, sharing telephone numbers and pledging to be available. They brought with them victims' advocates, representatives of Crime Stoppers, the anonymous crime tip hotline, nine young high-school students in the new police cadet program, detectives in charge of the major investigative divisions and others. Two cadets and all of the others taking a turn at the microphone to tell what they do and how to contact them.
Benta spoke with crowd-rousing passion about fighting crime.
"I want to ask you if you have had enough yet," he said. "Are you willing to say enough is enough?"
He pledged to work to round up those who are making the streets of Grove Place unsafe and residents prisoners in their own homes.
"We are going to find who you are and if you don't belong there, you have to get out," he said. "These young men have no respect. They shot up a car in Lorraine Village just a few minutes ago."
A bit later he said the perpetrators had been arrested.
Benta exhorted the audience to work with the police department in a unified front to keep the streets safer.
"Will you stand with one solid voice and say you will do everything you can do? Will you say your children will have a strong foundation of right?" Benta said.
Once done, they opened the floor for questions, with Benta and McCall answering some, and directing others to the most appropriate person.
Along with police, St. Croix Administrator Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion spoke and fielded questions too.
Rames asked people not to give their names when asking questions, and asked media not to take pictures of the questioners, so as to encourage people to speak freely.
"I've been living in this neighborhood 44 years," said the first questioner. "At this time, it has really gone to hell and everyone knows it." She traced the most serious decline to the rise of a loud, rowdy club.
"I am tired of calling the police about the club," she said. "Sometimes I have to call three or four times to get the music shut off, when I have to work in the morning. This club in the middle of Grove Place has got to go."
It has become a strip club, and remains open though it does not appear to have properly marked exits or anything to suggest it has passed any health or safety inspection, she said. The rowdy patrons are a scourge, she said.
"The elders in the neighborhood are terrified. My grandmother moved out because she was scared. Shots are fired from morning to night. Drug transactions are going on 24/7. Everyone can see it. Stevie Wonder could see it."
She also said residents are afraid to call the police because of past incidents where someone called the police and instead of seeing a patrol car rolling up, they see the person who they called to complain about coming to confront them for calling the police, because someone within police dispatch called to tip the criminal off.
"That club will be closed," Benta responded. "But it is going to take all of you to be a part of it."
As to someone inside the department informing criminals of the names of those who call the police to complain, Benta said he would fire them if he catches them.
"They have created a problem for you and they have created a problem for us as well," he said. "In order to enforce the law, in order to solve crimes we have to have your confidence. We are so much farther along today than years past but we must go further."
Benta acknowledged the department has had long-standing problems.
"You are right, it has been going on for decades," he said. "But I say to you I will be in your neighborhood every day … If you look you will see change is on the horizon. I am not blinking and we are not coming alone. We are coming in with Human Services. We are coming in with the DLCA (Division of Licensing and Consumer Affairs) to shut it down."
Another resident complained that abandoned cars were being dragged into the community.
"There are suspicious activities going on in these abandoned cars," she said. "It seems like merchandise is being stored in the vehicles and distributed out of them."
Encarnacion said abandoned vehicles were under the purview of the Office of the Governor and pledged to help.
"We will have an individual out there, and once we've identified the junked or abandoned vehicles, we will work with you to get those cars removed," he said.
Another person said the young don't have anything to do, which leads to crime.
"We have Grove Place park, with its nice basketball courts and tennis courts lit up all night," she said. "But it sits empty. They can't do anything there because all the (criminal) activity is there.
Another resident asked the police to establish a patrol or some police presence at the park, so children would feel safe playing there.
Benta said patrols at the Frederiksted Fish Market had been a success and made residents of the neighboring housing communities feel safer, and he would take the same approach next to Grove Place.
One person complained that calls to 911 sometimes ring and ring without an answer.
Rames suggested calling right back. The police telephone system has glitches in some of the lines and a line may be ringing on the caller's end but silent at the station, she said. If no one answers in three or four rings, that is the likely reason and if you call right back you are likely to get a different line the second time.
The territory is in the process of upgrading to a comprehensive, independently managed 911 system such as most stateside jurisdictions have, Francis added.
"We will be getting that fixed in very short order," he said.
The audience was lively and many had notepads with extensive lists of questions for the officers. Some were emotional and visibly upset about the level of violent crime in the neighborhood. Had the meeting not ended at 9 p.m. after three hours, it appeared questions would likely have continued for some time.

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