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HomeNewsArchivesHomicide Rate Set Record in 2010, but Gains Were Made

Homicide Rate Set Record in 2010, but Gains Were Made

The 62 homicides in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2010 topped the previous year’s record by eight, but the rate in the latter half of the year was far lower than the bloody pace of the first six months, leaving police officials cautiously hopeful that they are beginning to get a handle on the situation.

And the rate at which the police are "clearing" the crimes, identifying the culprit and making an arrest, is on the rise.

Police Commissioner Francis E. Novelle Jr. said Friday a number of factors, including aggressive police tactics and better cooperation between citizens and police are making a difference.

While the territory’s first homicide of 2010 waited four days, the carnage came thick and fast in the first five months of the year. In the year’s first quarter, the tally hit 20. If the mayhem had continued at that pace all year, the homicide toll for 2010 would have been 80.

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The violence grew even worse in April and reached a crescendo in May, when there were seven homicides in the first week alone and 14 by the end of the month.

By the end of May there had been 38 homicides in the territory, divided about equally between St Thomas and St. Croix. That’s an average of 7.6 a month. Had the killing continued at that pace all year, there would have been more than 90 homicides.

And it wasn’t just the numbers that caused so much concern. The public nature of so many of the crimes caused fear. There were two shooting incidents near public ballparks on St. Thomas and St. Croix, one of which saw two men killed. In July 14-year-old Lizmarie Perez Chapparro, a visitor to St. Thomas from Puerto Rico, was riding a safari bus near Coki Point Beach when she was killed in a crossfire of bullets that left another man dead as well. That tragedy brought a huge public outcry.

But by summer, something had changed. After the May 20 death of Youcari Torres, who was shot in a struggle with police after he was suspected of breaking into a residence, the murder rate dropped radically. There wasn’t another homicide in the territory until June 26, and only two for the month of June, four in July and two in August.

And the havoc of the first half of the year did not return at the pace it had been maintaining. For the final seven months of the year there were 24 homicides.

On the last day of the old year, Commissioner Francis pointed to several factors that he thought would give 2011 a better ending.

"When you look at the murder rate, there’s not just one thing that addresses those issues," he said.

The increasing use of "saturated patrols," in which scores of police descend on an area and keep up a high profile has had a major impact, according to Francis and other police brass. When the patrols hit the streets, within an hour or so the "bad guys" know they’re out and take cover for the night, the police have said.

The anti-gang task force has also been effective, he said.

"They focus on the gangs, target them," Francis said. "They get in their face so that they know the police are aware of who they are and that we’re watching them."

The department’s work in some of the troubled housing communities is also bearing fruit he said. When the police go into an area and ask the residents what the problems are, then come back and help fix them, that brings the residents closer to the police.

"When we started to get out in the community, it built confidence. The people have been providing tips and information that’s led to some of the timely arrests."

Many of the homicides early in the year were gang oriented and retaliation crimes, Francis said. In many cases either party involved could have been the victim or the perpetrator, with the distinction based as much on timing as anything. In a brutally Darwinian way, those crimes were removing people from the community who might have created more trouble.

Francis pointed to one string of incidents early in the year, in which the suspected perpetrator of the first shooting become the victim in the second. Then the presumed perpetrator of the second was killed in retaliation in the third. The domino effect continued, he said, and when it was over four people the police believed to be killers were themselves killed. It was not how anyone wanted those crimes resolved, Francis said, but "the community can breathe a sigh of relief that those killers are no longer wandering around the street."

Francis also pointed to the effectiveness of the Crime Stoppers V.I. program, the anonymous tip service that has been bringing in information for the police to act on.

But the most important factor, he said, has been hard, aggressive police work, which has resulted in a very high "clearance" rate.

"We’re not proud of the numbers (of homicides) we have seen," he said. "We don’t have any control over the murders that are committed, we have the responsibility to solve them."

And the V.I.P.D. has been getting very good at that. Their clearance rate has been between 67 and 73 percent all year, better than the national average, which according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports is 65 percent for homicides.

Francis has announced that he will retire as police commissioner sometime this year, as soon as his replacement can be found. Friday he outlined what he thinks the next commissioner will need to keep in mind.

"We have to, have to, have to minimize the flow of guns into the territory. We have to stop the guns from coming in."

That will only happen, Francis said, with the cooperation of federal agencies.

"This has to be a collective effort," he said.

He said he would urge his successor to "select a good team of individuals to work with him, then we need to build the morale of our police force to the point where the officers feel committed to doing their best jobs, and with the increase in the public’s trust, build that continued partnership."

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