March 25, 2009 — No one likes crime, that much everyone could agree to Tuesday at a hearing on the Virgin Islands Police Department. What to do about it was less clear when the six-hour meeting of the Senate's Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice finally adjourned at 10:30 p.m.
The stated purpose was to examine the workings of the Police Department, and Police Commissioner James H. McCall bore the brunt of the questioning, which ranged from detailed questions about procedures and policies to openly expressed doubts about his leadership to hand-wringing about the state of the community. Emotions at times ran high during the marathon session, which had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Fritz Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted but didn't get under way until 4:30 p.m.
McCall told the senators his department is making inroads on crime, doing its best to protect people and property and prevent crime in the territory despite a shortage of manpower. The police are taking guns off the streets, seizing drugs and fighting what appears to be a rising tide of lawlessness while responding to a growing number of calls for service from an expanding population.
But not all the senators were convinced.
"As far as violent crimes are concerned, you're a failure," Sen. Neville James told the commissioner. "This whole thing is crazy The things we're hearing from a violent crime standpoint in the Virgin Islands we have never heard of before."
The territory had 46 homicides in 2007, 45 in 2008, and 16 so far through Tuesday. If there isn't another homicide this month, that puts the territory on pace for 64 for the year.
Sen. Usie Richards echoed that sentiment, saying, "I'm still not convinced you're able to do this job."
Sen. Alvin Williams repeatedly pressed McCall for a more aggressive stance, saying people feel safest when there's a large police presence. Again and again he pushed the commissioner to use his authority to make use of personnel from other agencies, including courthouse security and from agencies with policing authority to enhance police visibility.
Similarly, Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe called for more "boots on the ground" and more aggressive practices.
"When I go home tonight on the Melvin Evans Highway, I hope someone pulls me over and asks why my taillight is out," he said.
Several lawmakers asked about increasing gang-related crimes, including shootings, and how to combat it.
McCall said the gang shootings "are not indiscriminate. They come from feuds that have gone on for years, some of them."
The department is targeting "kingpins" in gangs and drug networks, but just suspecting someone is involved in such activity isn't enough. You have to be able to prove it, he said.
"We're only one part of the system," the commissioner said. "We have to work with the prosecutors for the prosecution," so that when they do charge a person with a crime, it will stick.
To address manpower shortages, McCall said the department is trying to provide incentives to encourage veteran officers to stay on the job longer. Now, officers can retire after 20 years and receive a pension equal to 60 percent of their salary. Sen. Terence "Positive" Nelson suggested allowing the pension amount to increase to 70 or 75 percent if they remain on the force longer.
While the hearings covered a lot of territory — including the new 911 call center slated to begin operations this year, police recruits, physical exams, forensics, computers, communication and firearms — many participants agreed that money alone couldn't solve the problem.
"We need to see if we can get the root causes of what's actually creating these situations in the community," McCall said.
Experience and statistic show that most crimes, and most violent crimes, are committed by young men, most of whom dropped out of school early and have no skills, no training and no hope, he said.
"We now we have grandmothers and grandfathers in the community who are afraid of their grandchildren," McCall said. "We know we have parents whose children bring home firearms, and the parents don't say anything because they're afraid."
Sen,. Wayne James agreed.
"It always seems like we are almost approaching solving crime the way a person would approach going to a hospital with a cancerous ulcer that had been festering for years and then blaming the emergency room for not curing them," said Sen. Wayne James. " At some point if you have no hope you have nothing to lose and that's when you commit violent crimes."
Commissioner McCall also said the department will soon have assault rifles to give them some parity in the arms race on the street. Criminals are often better armed than the police officers trying to capture them. The department will also soon have 200 new police cars, replacing vehicles that have outlived their contracted life.
McCall declined to give in open session the precise numbers of patrol officers or their exact duties or schedules. He was willing to give the senators that information in closed session, but said it wasn't helpful for the criminals to know how many police officers were likely to be on duty at a specific time in a given area.
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