81.7 F
Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Feb. 13, 2004 – More than two hours of uninterrupted and often vitriolic rhetoric from St. Thomas-St. John district union officers failed to convince a Senate committee on Friday that Police Commissioner Elton Lewis should be removed from his post.
Sen. Lorraine Berry invited virtually all the top police brass and the police union representatives to testify before the Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, which she chairs. In announcing the hearing, she had pledged it would be a "no-holds-barred meeting" and that "Everything will be on the table … no issue will be considered too hot to handle, no issue will be shoved under the rug."
It seemed that no issue was left "under the rug" on Friday, although in the view of several senators and other observers, some items should have been left there. Testimony from union officers included hearsay and accusations unsupported by evidence. Sens. Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Ronald Russell objected to the Legislature being used as a forum for airing union grievances.
Berry invited union representatives to air their grievances in the morning deliberations — and gave them an unlimited forum for doing so. Lewis and other police officials were scheduled to speak in the afternoon.
St. Thomas-St. John police union officials have been critical of changes Lewis has made in the Police Department since assuming his post 10 months ago. Aaron Krigger, the district's Police Benevolent Association president, has called for the commissioner to resign.
Berry had given the union officials a list of issues she wanted them to address, including "internal morale problems," "lethal patterns among police officers" and whether there is "a 'morality/ethical' scale for relationships among officers."
It was an extensive list, and it prompted extensive answers. Riise Richards, United Steelworkers of America local president, spoke from a 15-page prepared statement, with several ad-libs. Capt. Edmund Thompson, district Law Enforcement Supervisors Union president, read a 22-page, single spaced statement. He spoke for four unions — his own, the Police Benevolent Association, and two Steelworkers units.
Unions call for 'special inquiry'
In a letter dated last Nov. 26 and received by Berry on Jan. 18, the unions asked Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, Senate President David Jones and Attorney General Iver Stridiron and Berry to initiate a "special inquiry" directed at Lewis, alleging more than 20 counts of fraud.
Thompson's testimony tended to the specific issues the unions cited in requesting the probe. Richards' covered a broad range of comment from unnamed fellow officers and undocumented generalizations liberally spiked with biblical quotations. She called Lewis's appointment as commissioner "the biggest hoax in the history of the VIPD."
Richards took umbrage at a remark she attributed to Lewis — that he "does not entertain gossip, nor does he want any friends." Her criticism extended from calling him a "tyrant" to citing what she said were comments made by unnamed police officers. An example: "One police officer said he wished he could take the Police commissioner and tie him up to an electrical transformer."
When the Police Department came under fire in the "Deadly Force" report published by the V.I. Daily News, Richards said, "the commissioner never stepped forward to stand in support of the men and women in blue."
After charging that Lewis has a "prehistoric mentality in the 21st century," Richards had words for the administration and the senators, as well. "The governor of the Virgin Islands and each of you senators are now put on notice that this matter will not rest until we have a leader that we can look up to and that we can trust," she said.
Both Richards and Thompson have had job reassignments by Lewis. Richards was transferred from Planning and Research to the Motor Vehicle Division. Thompson was moved from commander of the Special Operations Bureau to Zone C Command in Tutu.
Thompson's complaints included allegations concerning Lewis's bogus claim to a college degree; department policy on auto repairs; various personnel matters including promotions and transfers; favoritism; budget allotments; off-island travel; lack of hand-held radios, up-to-date guns and other equipment; deliberately misinforming the Legislature about the date of a promotional exam; and the closing of the Police Boot Camp.
Thompson charged that Lewis's "blind contempt for executive union officials of the LESU has clouded his judgment in managing police activities in this district."
St. Croix union officers appeared Friday to have no beef with Lewis. Testifying after his St. Thomas-St. John counterparts, Sgt. Anthony Xavier said: "I have worked with Elton Lewis for years and I know his integrity. I will work with him and support him until I hear otherwise."
Objections to Senate as forum for complaints
Several senators disputed Berry's contention that the Senate was the appropriate forum for the unions to air their grievances.
Russell had brought his 17-year-old son to the Legislature for the day. But he told his colleagues: "I told my son to take a walk; the heat is too hot in here. I want our leaders to set an example for our youth."
Russell continued: "After I read what the Daily News had printed, I thought, 'That's not the police I know.' The paper is undermining our community. The hostility and negativism here appears deeper than labor issues. The governor has to step in now — this body can't solve these problems."
Several senators disputed Berry's contention that the Senate was the appropriate forum for the unions to air their grievances.
Liburd told the union and police representatives: "When we look at the community after this meeting, they must wonder what is going on out there, with the allegations made today. We need to make the police one [body]. The governor should call all of you together and thrash this out. In this forum, it just won't work."
Liburd also said he felt there was an underlying theme to Thompson's complaints. "In the union there is a process," he said, but for what transpired on Friday, "there is another reason. In political season and time, you get to hear it." He said the perception is that the 25th Legislature "didn't do a good job in the Rules Committee" of investigating Lewis when his nomination was being considered, and that based on Friday's testimony, "people will say the police are no good, just like they say that about the senators — 'Get rid of 'em.'"
Union issues seen as administration problem
Liburd reiterated: "The chief executive has to step in. This body is where we are supposed to get you money, equipment and the staff you need."
Several senators, Liburd among them, asked Thompson for his recommendation for "solving this problem." Thompson said his main concern is trying to keep his officers from taking retirement. He said more than 85 percent of the officers are currently eligible to retire — which police personnel can do after 20 years of service.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone added his objection to the Senate chambers being used for the airing of grievances, terming the matter "too sensitive for this forum." He also criticized the "Deadly Force" report. Lewis had accused the newspaper of publishing the 44-page report on Dec. 30 in the hope of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Malone said: "Pulitzer prizes don't generate revenue for the Virgin Island government. The bigger picture is crime, and we must realize it's tied directly to our bread and butter."
Malone also said some of the information being aired Friday would be digested and used by criminals. &q
uot;If I were Al Capone, I'd move here and open up shop," he said, to the delight of Sen. Celestino A. White Sr.
White, a retired police veteran and onetime police chief, told Malone he didn't know what he was talking about. With a wide grin, White said: "Criminals are criminal because they're smart. We would be naive to think we're alerting the criminal element. If we tell them a light's out in Savan, they know it; they knocked it out."
But, White continued, "We shouldn't be here talking about who says what to whom else. If Thompson was transferred, so what? Management is in charge; not the unions. If they don't have confidence in the commissioner, we're lost."
Sen. Usie Richards asked when the unions had delivered their request for an inquiry and supporting documents to the Legislature; the union officers couldn't say. He said although the documents are dated Nov. 26, he had not seen them "until today."
Richards noted an indication on the letter from four union representatives that it was being copied to the Pentagon, CNN News, CBS and the Associated Press. But the three news agencies are marked "pending." "Did you give the administration a chance to respond before sending these documents out?" he asked.
Under further questioning from Richards, Thompson said the Police Department is a paramilitary organization. Richards, noting that Thompson had served in the military, asked:. "Didn't you make decisions about transfers without consulting others?"
Richards voted in favor of Lewis's nomination last year, and he said Friday: "I support the commissioner. I support my decision."
Airing of complaints necessary, Berry says
Berry defended her decision to hold the hearing and denied that it had any political basis. "This meeting was necessary," she said. "You cannot proceed with solving crimes if your troops are not with you. The public needs to see positive things happening in the department. You must inspire your men and women in blue."
She added: "This hearing is bringing out things we needed to know. I am very disturbed by statements of the unions. I need to know if they are accurate."
She asked Thompson what he would do to improve police protection, and how would he defend the use of lethal force. Thompson said he doesn't favor the use of deadly force, preferring a police officer's alternatives such as judo, a baton or reasoning. No officer wants to resort to using his gun, he said.
Berry asked Thompson if the Daily News accounts were "correct, part correct, or not at all." Thompson said what Lewis and other officers have said: that is it difficult to go back 20 years and check out each case, where sometimes people have moved or died, and it's not possible to check them all out.
The hearing broke for lunch at 2 p.m.
Committee members attending the morning deliberations were Sens. Berry, Emmett Hansen II, Liburd, Malone and Russell. Also present were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Luther Renee, Richards and White, who are not members of the committee.

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