Feb. 13, 2004 – Police Commissioner Elton Lewis defended his leadership at Friday's afternoon deliberations of a Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee hearing convened to discuss the state of the Police Department.
Lewis had been blasted in the morning by union leaders claiming, among other things, that his managerial style is "too harsh" and that he shows favoritism. (See "Hearing lets union officers rant unrestricted".)
"I am not certain what you hope to achieve here today," Lewis told the committee chair, Sen. Lorraine Berry. "However, it is my hope that the end result will be beneficial to all concerned."
Soon after he took over as commissioner 10 months ago, Lewis said, he and his staff conducted an overall assessment of the department.
"This assessment uncovered many areas of gross mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, an absence of historic documentation, lack of training in critical areas, inadequate manpower levels, and the list goes on and on," Lewis said on Friday. "We charted a course based on training and experience to bring this derailed train back on track."
But that course wasn't where many union members on the force wanted to go, he said. "No matter how forward thinking you may be, there will always be resistance," he said in response to the charges leveled at him Friday morning. "The actions taken by my staff and [me] were not done in a vacuum; everything has been documented. Many necessary actions have been meet with resistance, particularly from the St. Thomas unions."
Lewis, who resides on St. Croix, has met opposition mainly from union members in the St. Thomas-St. John district, some of whom claim that he shows favoritism for his own island.
Sen. Celestino White asked Lewis whether he had more interest in the district of St. Croix. The commissioner said he didn't feel that "I favor one island more than the next," adding that his interest is in the improvement of a "unified" Police Department.
Lewis told senators that only "a very small fraction" of the police rank and file within the St. Thomas/St. John district is resistant to change. "Management is in charge of this police department, not the unions," he reminded the legislators.
He said the department has a few complacent employees who want to do nothing but draw a paycheck every two weeks — and that it's almost impossible to get rid of such individuals because of union contracts.
However, "their behavior will not be tolerated," Lewis said. "And if their actions rise to the level of departmental infraction or criminality, they will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. There must be some semblance of order in the Police Department, or else we're wasting our time."
He also charged that some individuals have "actively participated in a smear campaign" against his administration of the department under the guise of union business.
Berry said the hearing was "necessary" and that her intent was to "strengthen the Police Department" so that residents and visitors can feel safe. "The perception in this community is that your troops are not with you," she told Lewis, urging him to "offer the olive branch" to the unions.
Lewis told Berry: "Despite all of the comments and criticism that was made here this afternoon, I want to say to you and the people of the Virgin Islands that there are positive things taking place within the department."
He mentioned strengthened ties with federal agencies and the recent awarding to the department of $247,000 in federal funds from the U.S. Justice Department's asset forfeiture program. (See "Police receive federal asset forfeiture funds".)
"Yes, we have challenges," Lewis said. "But we have a good department, and we are committed to improvement."
Sen. Emmett Hansen II said the hearing was probably not the best way to address the conflict between the unions and the police brass, and that it should not have been made "a public matter."
"I think the chief executive should have handled this when he received the letter," Hansen said, referring to a letter sent to Gov. Charles Turnbull from four police union leaders requesting a meeting. Turnbull did not respond to the letter, union officers said.
Pronouncing Friday "a sad day for me," Police Chief Novelle Francis said the proceedings brought to public light the "deficiencies" of the Police Department, and "this will make our job difficult to do." He added, "I'm hoping we can get on with the people's business."
Committee members present at the hearing were Sens. Berry, Hansen and White. Also present were Sens. Carlton Dowe and Usie Richards, who are not members of the committee.
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