Feb. 3, 2006 – More money, manpower, and community involvement are what the territory needs to improve crime fighting, law enforcement officials said at a criminal justice forum held Friday at the Legislature on St. Thomas.
"We also need to make sure that we have continuous training for our police officers, and that we stay on top of the latest technological advancements," said Police Commissioner Elton Lewis, a speaker at the forum.
During the forum Lewis was asked to explain what steps are being taken to improve the department in light of the territory's rapidly increasing homicide rate.
"The public does not trust the Police Department," Sen. Lorraine L. Berry said. "And I also think that the perception from the community is that officers demonstrate 'selective enforcement,' where some people are punished and others are just let go. Something has to be done to remedy this."
Berry questioned Lewis about a recent assessment conducted by the federal government on the VIPD. After the forum, Berry said the assessment was made last December and includes a list of the department's deficiencies, which range from community complaints about officer misconduct to the updating of police manuals and procedures.
During the forum, Lewis said he agreed with the federal government's report and – without giving specifics – said he is already making progress with revising police policies according to the recommendations.
"I was the one who asked for that assessment to be done," Lewis said. "And we will be working toward accomplishing all the tasks set forth in that letter."
Also speaking at the forum was Joseph Ponteen, director of the Bureau of Corrections – an agency which was recently taken to court by the U.S. Department of Justice over the state of the territory's jails. Because the court case is currently ongoing, Ponteen said he could not say much about the Bureau's present state of affairs.
Representatives from the Attorney General's Office also said the Justice Department is experiencing a shortage of lawyers which has contributed to an extensive backlog of cases in the court system.
Assistant Attorney General Charlotte Poole Davis also said more money is needed for the creation of a witness protection program, as well as the building of a lab in the territory to test evidence related to drug and sexual assault cases. Poole Davis said such evidence is presently sent off-island to be tested, and is generally not returned by the time certain cases are up for consideration in court.
Furthermore, Poole Davis said there should be more coordination between the Justice and Police Departments. She said if more officers were trained in certain criminal procedures, they would understand how to properly collect and process evidence, and how to read and write a criminal report.
Attention was also given to problem relating to the trafficking of drugs and firearms in the Caribbean region. Lewis said the department is currently working with Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen to get a federal Border Patrol unit in the territory to prevent individuals from taking advantage of the V.I.'s open borders.
Representatives from other Caribbean nations also said they were experiencing problems with the drug and firearm trafficking.
"In our region, the presence of illegal firearms is an increasing threat," said Robert Jeffers, police commissioner of St. Kitts and Nevis. "People are no longer afraid to kill, and our children are beginning to view criminals who have expensive jewelry and fancy cars as role models."
Jeffers said a firearm recovery unit was recently formed on St. Kitts and Nevis to combat the presence of illegal firearms in the region. "During one of our raids, we found in one of the villages a set of bullets designed to pierce things like armor or bullet proof vests," Jeffers said. "These bullets are being designed to kill police officers, and they could also pose a big threat to our society."
To curb drug trafficking in the region, Jeffers said St. Kitts and Nevis uses an air wing – or fleet of planes designed to collect intelligence – that makes regular sweeps over the region. "If one of the planes spots a suspicious boat or aircraft, they take the information to the Coast Guard who will then check out that suspicious boat or aircraft," Jeffers said.
Shannondor Evans, superintendent of the Royal Bahamas Police Force, said the Bahamas has regular sea patrol and air patrol through a program called BAT which was started in 1989. "BAT stands for Bahamas, Americas, and Turks and Caicos," Evans said. "And what this program is designed to do is have vessels patrol the seas around these areas constantly so drugs and firearms being trafficked into the area can be intercepted."
Both Evans and Reynell Frazer, commissioner of police in the British Virgin Islands, said their regions also collaborate closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Lewis said the V.I. does not have the resources for air patrolling. "We rely upon our marine presence in the territory," he said. "However, our Customs and Immigration agents are short-staffed, and so it has been increasingly difficult to control this type of trafficking without the help of a federal border patrol unit."
However, Lewis added that the V.I. collaborates with other islands, along with various federal law enforcement agencies, on a regular basis. "This is what's going to help us keep crime out of the area," he said. "We must continue to collaborate – not only with our Caribbean neighbors – but with our public as well. We need more community-oriented policing, where the residents become involved in the police process and help us to get the answers we're looking for in some of our cases."
At the end of the forum, senators said they would try to locate more funding for the Police and Justice Departments. Berry said, "A supplemental budget will soon be coming down from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, and hopefully we'll be able to appropriate some money for some of these resources at that time."
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