July 28, 2004 – During the Police Department's fiscal year 2005 budget hearing on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee heard accounts of personnel and equipment shortages, inadequate funding and a community in "crisis." To address these problems, the department is asking for $46.4 million in FY 2005, an increase of $6.5 million over the current year's appropriation.
According to the written testimony of Police Commissioner Elton Lewis, the Office of Management and Budget has suggested an allocation for the department totaling just over $40.5 million, but the published executive budget proposed by the governor puts the figure slightly above $42 million. The reason for the $1.5 million gap was not made clear, but senators and Police brass agreed on the issue behind the funding: The territory's mounting crime problem must be solved.
Several minutes into his prepared statement, Lewis told the Finance Committee chair, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg: "Our community is in crisis and our people are suffering due to the effects of crime upon our economy and way of life."
Topping his list of deficiencies are what Lewis referred to as "crippling personnel issues." So far this fiscal year, Lewis said, 33 officers faced with overdue negotiated pay increases and the stresses of their jobs have retired or resigned. He said the department critically needs 200 new police officers but added that even if funding were available, it would take two years to move the new recruits through training and a probationary period.
Lewis said the department needs also 200 new vehicles, 500 bulletproof vests, 300 hand-held radios and more funding for communications infrastructure and training. And, he said, it needs more money for the ailing Motor Vehicle Bureau.
The bureau falls under the Police Department and without a separate budget of its own relies on the department for funding. Lewis said the MVB, which on St. Thomas is housed in a building that suffered severe damage during flooding last November, received $89,294 for "enhancements" in FY 2004.
An astonished Donastorg asked, "What will $89,294 do for the enhancement of the Motor Vehicle Bureau?"
"That's a good question," Lewis replied, without further elaboration.
One suggestion made by Lewis to mitigate the police personnel problem would have the 25th Legislature establish a reciprocal recognition law. The law would pave the way for certified officers from Puerto Rico and the mainland to join the V.I. police force and immediately hit the streets in entry-level positions. But under questioning Lewis admitted there would be no help forthcoming from Puerto Rico, which is struggling with its own personnel shortages, and that the story is the same throughout much of the mainland.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, pushing Lewis to elaborate on what he thinks should be done about the "crisis," asked him if he thinks "the governor should declare a state of emergency." Lewis answered no.
Sen. Ronald Russell asked Lewis what the Police Department is doing to protect the territory's school children, citing a video surveillance system to be installed in five St. Croix schools. The purchase and installation of the system was supposed to be paid for with a $400,000 federal grant.
Lewis deferred to Meredith Nielsen, a grant administrator with the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, who said the deadline for the contract comes in September and the department still has not hired a contractor to execute the work. "This grant has been floating around for two and a half years, and we will lose it if it isn't signed in the next five days," Nielsen said. She added, "Sixty days is not long enough to find a contractor."
Later in the session it was stated that a memorandum of agreement concerning the cameras had been sent some time ago to Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, who has done nothing with it. Lewis said the reason for Michael's inaction stems from her concern about whether, once the cameras are up and running, there will be funding for monitoring them.
"Parents have no evidence that those responsible [for the safety of their children] have done their job," Russell said.
Narcotics Strike Force
Much of the five-hour session, during which Law Enforcement Planning Commission and Narcotics Strike Force officials also delivered their budget requests, did not deal with budgetary issues at all. Rather, the senators and the leadership of the territory's crime-fighting forces entered into a lengthy exploration of the mutual enmity that exists between the Police Department and the NSF.
Charged with fighting drugs and drug-related crime in the territory, the NSF falls under the direct oversight of the LEPC and answers to the Office of the Governor, but for budgetary purposes it is lumped in with the VIPD, as is the LEPC. Fitzroy Williams, NSF director, and Eddy Charles, LEPC director and drug policy adviser to the governor, were both on hand.
A recent joint action on St. Croix between NSF and Police Department personnel became the starting point for round after round of questioning lead initially by Sen. Luther Renee, who asked Williams what the relationship is between the NSF and the Police Department.
Williams explained that a recent NSF request for help from the Police Department in executing a search warrant on St. Croix was initially denied only to be granted two hours later. In answer to Sen. Roosevelt David's question as to why the NSF request was first rejected, Lewis said, "I won't let any of my officers participate in any investigation with the NSF because of credibility and integrity issues everyone here is aware of. It was a tactical decision, and we needed time to review the details of that operation."
A June 18 Source report stated that Williams was aware "that his agency has an image problem" due to "the recent trial and acquittal of two strike force agents on St. Croix and the previous plea-bargaining and subsequent sentencing of two narcotics agents, also on St. Croix."
The Omnibus Bill passed recently by the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice -Committee includes a provision for changing the name of the strike force to the V.I. Drug Enforcement Bureau in an effort toward changing its image.
On Tuesday Williams stated that "no federal law enforcement agencies will work with the NSF" and that the territory's "federal courts will not try cases brought" by the strike force. Williams, who took over direction of the force a year ago, told the assembly: "I am doing everything in my power to change the image of the NSF." But to date, he said, his efforts have yielded no results.
Williams said his agency needs about $1.2 million in FY 2005 to meet its minimum operating expenses but said a "realistic budget" — one that would fund outstanding obligations, back and incentive pay and internal promotions would be close to $1.5 million. The proposed executive budget calls for an appropriation of $786,281, a $9,000 decrease from the current funding.
With his current staff of four agents, one intelligence officer, a supervisor and two secretaries, Williams said, his agency has been making strides. He said ongoing surveillance and drug-buy operations have yielded sealed warrants for "more than 30 targets" and that the warrants will be executed in coming weeks. He said the agency has used federal grant money to hire five new agents on St. Thomas and that he wants to hire five additional agents for St. Croix, three to be paid with federal money.
Law Enforcement Planning Commission
In contrast, Charles said the Law Enforcement Planning Commission can and will operate within the $567,979 budget proposed by the OMB, although the funding represents a 3.4 percent decrease from the FY 2004 appropriation of just under $590,000.
The LEPC is responsib
le for developing the territory's drug policy, monitoring and suggesting improvements to the V.I. criminal justice system, and obtaining and managing federal grants for crime and terrorism related efforts.
Charles said his agency, which has a full-time staff of 15, received $9.4 million in federal grants during FY 2004, $6 million of it from the Department of Homeland Security. He said the LEPC used the money to fund a broad array of local initiatives, from youth summer and after-school programs to cabinet-level counter-terrorism training. Additionally, he said, through a partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands, the LEPC has provided certification programs in weapons of mass destruction and bio-terrorism for the territory's first responders.
Charles outlined several other LEPC initiatives, including the revamping of its Web site to streamline the grant application process and improvement of the justice system's live-scan fingerpriting capabilities. He also said the LEPC is "moving rapidly toward the establishment of a crime statistical analysis center" to monitor crime territorywide and, it is hoped, yield data to help law-enforcement agencies recognize crime patterns. This, in turn, he said, will aid in prevention and enforcement efforts.
Lewis and his colleagues offered little hard data concerning local crime. For instance, nobody present was able to answer Berry's questions as to how many homicides there have been in FY 2004, and how many of those cases have been solved.. Lewis promised he would have those numbers by next week. (For a running summary of this year's killings, see the Source "Homicides in 2004" Data file.)
Finance Committee members present at Tuesday's afternoon session were Sens. Berry, David, Donastorg, Louis Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Renee and Ronald Russell. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was excused. Also attending the session were Sens. Carlton Dowe, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino A. White Sr., who are not members of the committee.
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