Coming off a weekend with back-to-back homicides, some of the territory’s top officials – including Gov. Kenneth Mapp, Police Commissioner Delroy Richards and acting St. Thomas-St. John Police Chief Jason Marsh – said Tuesday that getting more information from the community is the weakest link in the government’s crime fighting strategy.
“The one remaining holdout that we have in the Virgin Islands is that we continue to ask the residents for their assistance and we have not been getting enough information from the community on the crime and violent activities,” Mapp said Tuesday at a press conference held on St. Thomas to discuss his recent trade mission to China.
“Even those who are being shot are saying that they don’t know who is shooting at them and then a month, or six to eight weeks later, they end up dead. We have to deal with the reality that we are not taking a level of responsibility that we must take.”
The governor said the V.I. Police Department will be announcing six or seven major arrests in upcoming weeks, but added that the number could increase, or that police could respond more directly to “the violence, settling of scores and the fighting of turf battles,” if residents could call in immediately and report what they know.
At a separate press conference Tuesday on St. Thomas, Marsh issued the same call and told members of the media that came to meet him at the Farrelly Justice Complex that VIPD has the resources to respond and make arrests if they have the evidence needed to land a conviction.
“We would like to see quick arrests but, as you know, crimes like homicides take time to investigate,” Marsh said. “And while we are happy with arrests, we would be happier with convictions, which make families more at ease and recognize that some sort of justice is done.”
Marsh continued, “But I think we can’t do this alone as a Police Department. We can’t be everywhere at the same time but somebody sees what’s going on and we realize that.”
He said the department needs “to encourage people to come forward and, once things are identified, when we have leads, we can make arrests. Because it’s really a small group of people that has this community living in fear and we have the people to stop it. So we have to encourage the community to have faith in us and just make the call.”
Gang Violence, Guns and the Criminal Profile
What officials agree on is that much of the homicides are the result of gang violence and turf battles, which, in some cases, are even playing out between the districts. Speaking at a Rotary Club of St. Thomas Sunrise meeting Tuesday morning, Commissioner Richards said that most recent murder victims are in their late teens or early 20’s and that most shootings – approximately 95 percent — are “retaliatory in nature.”
For years, police have said they have been gathering intelligence on suspects in homicide cases and monitoring who they associate with and their rivals, which Richards confirmed Tuesday is still a common practice within the department.
While Marsh said separately that as soon as VIPD’s new Homicide Task Force tries to move quickly on the intel as soon as it comes in, Richards told Rotary Club members that one of the main reasons there are not more arrests is because many of the suspects – or even victims that live through being shot — eventually end up dead.
And because of many of the crimes are interconnected, VIPD has a good idea of who will be shot next, Marsh said, adding until more information comes in that will allow officers to be more “proactive,” there’s no way to tell when the next incident will happen.
Richards mentioned that the department has invested in cameras to catch incidents throughout the community but said that many have also been “shot up” and are no longer functioning. More cameras will be brought in to help with ballistics cases and VIPD will be placing them as “high as possible” so that officers might be able to recover the information they need.
Richards said, “Several of the cases that we have reports out for are harder to crack because of the lack of cameras. And if people aren’t talking, the pictures aren’t going to lie.”
Grants are out for cameras on St. Thomas and St. Croix and plans are also in place for a central monitoring station that Richards said can be staffed with retirees.
But both he and Mapp said Tuesday that the gun violence will climb further if circumstances remain the same.
The situation in the territory plays out against the backdrop of violence on the mainland, with the Sunday massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and a renewed political debate over gun laws.
Speaking Tuesday, Richards also pointed out the challenges VIPD faces with the influx of guns into the territory, which are not declared legally to VIPD once they come in.
“How we find out is sometimes we are able to pick up some intel information,” Richards said. “During Carnival, for example, a good friend of mine from Firearms received a tip from the Las Vegas Police Department that someone was traveling into the territory with 18 Glocks and two AK-47’s and Customs was immediately notified.”
In this situation, however, VIPD could not charge the passenger, who was eventually detained once Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents came in, did a profile and discovered that the passenger had made four or five previous trips to the territory with guns.
“That’s the loophole, because every day, you got people traveling into the territory and we have no idea what they have in their bags because we can’t search them,” Richards said.
What’s Being Done
To combat the influx of guns, Richards told Rotary Sunrise members Tuesday that partnerships with federal agencies are being executed. A meeting with ATF representatives in Puerto Rico on Monday to see how the bureau can “try to get a handle on firearms coming into the territory” was held, and Richards said that on VIPD’s end, efforts are under way to combat a manpower challenge by building bodies such as the Homicide Task Force that could use experienced detectives to work cases and build evidence.
Marsh also spoke more in depth about VIDP’s efforts at his press conference Tuesday, saying that the basics of policing are being enforced: boots on the ground, knocking on doors and conducting traffic stops that routinely turn up drugs and guns.
Most importantly, VIPD has been assigned an attorney from the Attorney General’s Office to help officers build their cases as suspects are identified and to work out any Fourth Amendment violations, since Marsh said Tuesday that the importance of solving each case lies in the gathering of evidence needed to land get a warrant and land a conviction.
Included in VIPD’s crime fighting strategy are:
– the Homicide Task Force, which Marsh said is stocked with detectives that are targeting “hot spot” neighborhoods and specific individuals. Crime analysists are also being used to pinpoint hot spot areas;
– an Intel Unit to identify possible suspects;
– a strong partnership with St. Croix officers because Marsh said that there are certain suspects that travel between the islands and more communication on both sides helps to make VIPD “more proactive” in identifying what will happen next.
Marsh said that any continued federal monitoring of the department has helped VIPD in its mission as it continues to provide training that officers need in certain areas.
Mapp said in his press conference Tuesday that the government has continued to invest in training and put in $1 million to help establish more afterschool activities that would keep youth more active and “off the street corners.”
Richards said Tuesday that VIPD has helped raised $250,000 to bring the National Network of Safe Communities to the territory and is in the final stages of setting the foundation to start the project.
“Even with all of this, though, I think we can’t do this alone as a police department,” Marsh added Tuesday. “We need the community to come forward.”