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Francis Credits Citizens With Curbing Crime

April 7, 2009 — Gangs, turf wars, brazen gun violence, increased homicides and manpower shortages have not dampened the spirits of the V.I. Police Department top brass, in part because they see a measure of success in engaging the community’s help in solving crime.
Arrests, gun confiscations and newfound community cooperation have provided some balance to the seesaw of crime and punishment in the territory. In 2007, police arrested 464 people in the St. Thomas-St. John District, according to Assistant Police Commissioner Novelle E. Francis Jr., who spoke to members of the Rotary St. Thomas Sunrise club Tuesday morning.
Francis’ appearance at Rotary is part of a VIPD initiative to make the department’s strategies better-known to the public, while offering reassurance that the police have a plan and are implementing it.
In 2008, police arrested 610 people for criminal activity, he said. Police seized 319 illegal guns territory-wide in 2008 compared to 123 in 2007. Already this year they have grabbed 60.
Convictions are also on the rise. Out of 12 murder cases tried in 2008 all but one resulted in convictions.
Francis told Rotarians that tips from the community played a large part in the rise in arrests and convictions. One of the instruments residents have used is Crime Stoppers, an international program that has found its way to the Virgin Islands and provides monetary rewards for usable anonymous tips.
He said since January the organization has received more than 100 tips that citizens have been paid for.
Francis emphasized the tips and payments are completely anonymous. "If you want the money to be dropped under the mango tree in Savan," he said, "they will drop it under the mango tree in Savan."
Stepped-up surveillance and undercover operations have also contributed to stemming the tide of crime, Francis said.
Officers conducting traffic stops have netted illegal weapons on their way to potential crimes.
The stops are often the result of undercover investigations into where the crimes are being planned or where the criminals gather.
"Every time they move, they are moving with firearms," Francis said. He also said every time someone is arrested the potential for crime goes down. "Suspects may be responsible for several crimes," he said.
But high-profile, daylight shootings and robberies have recently had many residents on edge. The perception that criminal violence is increasingly harming innocent bystanders has also raised hackles.
One Rotarian, a doctor, said for nine years he had treated a lot of the victims of gunshots. The wounded were part of the criminal population. Now he said he is seeing patients who were simply caught in the fray.
Francis said a significant part of what many see as the rampant proliferation of guns are still registered guns. The number of guns recovered at the scenes of violent crimes that are lost or stolen registered firearms has risen from 60 percent to 66 percent since last reported a year or so ago.
As for the other 34 percent, "Guns are being brought into the territory by our very own people." Francis said. In some cases they are registered and then leased for a couple of hundred dollars a day.
He said it was an economic issue — a way for people to make money in hard times.
Meanwhile, he said, "we are taking a close look at who is registering these guns."
And while bringing registered guns into the territory is perfectly legal, several people have been busted for declaring one gun but actually carrying many, and Francis said, "we don’t know how many times they have done it."
Police are also working on breaking up gang activity, which officials say is more widespread and organized than people realize.
On the whole, Francis was most optimistic about the crucial role community members play in solving the crime problem.
He said where people once turned a blind eye to the crime in front of them, they are finally saying, enough is enough. He said in one instance a person stayed on the phone talking to police as they made their way to a crime scene.
In another case, "an elderly woman lifted up a piece of plywood to show us where four guns were hidden," he said.
Undercover work is also effective, he said, but at a cost to the number of officers on the streets.
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