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Police Commissioner: 2009 Homicide Rate 'Totally Unacceptable'

Chief Rodney Querrard addresses the press while Deputy Chief Dwayne DeGraff and Commissioner Novelle Francis listen.The Virgin Islands Police Department is taking action to make sure the territory does not see a repeat of last year’s record homicide rate, Police Commissioner Novelle Francis said Friday.

“Fifty-six homicides in 2009 is totally unacceptable,” Francis, flanked by St. Thomas/St. John/Water Island Police Chief Rodney Querrard and St. Thomas/Water Island Deputy Police Chief Dwayne DeGraff, said. “I have vowed that we will work hard not to achieve that number in 2010.”

Francis held a brief press conference in his St. Thomas office Friday to discuss the initiatives being taken by the department to battle the increase in the territory’s violent crime.

With only a 27- to 30-percent clearance rate of St. Thomas’ homicides, Francis admitted that the department will have to do a better job of solving those cases.

According to Francis, there is a common pattern among the victims of violent crime – the majority of them have criminal records ranging from illegal possession of a firearm to murder.

Francis said the department is trying to use the Attorney General’s office and the courts to place strict conditions upon these criminals when they are released into the community.

The territory’s population of Haitians and Dominicans may have had feuds at home that are continued when they arrive in the territory, Francis said, adding that he believes some witnesses are afraid to come forward because they are undocumented.

Gang activity and retaliation amongst gang members is also a major cause in the increase of violent crimes and the department has recently taken steps to address the gang situation.

The police department now has two tactical anti-gang coordinators – one on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix. These coordinators are charged with educating school personnel and members of the community regarding the signs of gang involvement.

Francis has also hired a liaison who will work closely with the housing communities, developing positive activities for youth at risk for gang involvement. The commissioner said the social aspect of youth involvement has to be addressed and combated with positive alternatives for young men and women involved in gangs.

The department also hopes to identify adults that are the source of the gangs.

According to Francis, approximately 60 percent of the guns used in the commission of a violent crime were registered and licensed in the territory.

Querrard pleaded with the community to turn in weapons belonging to family members that have died. Families can then apply for a gun permit if they want to keep the weapon.

Querrard also pleaded with parents to stop turning a blind eye when a child with no job starts bringing large amounts of cash or stolen merchandise into the home.

When asked what the department was doing about criminals from Tortola that enter the territory, commit a crime, then flee back to Tortola, Francis emphasized the fact that “we have a very open port and the police department does not have jurisdiction.” Francis did say, though, that he has an excellent working relationship with police in the British Virgin Islands.

Querrard told the media that although there is a criminal “hot list’ posted with TSA and Border Patrol, this only helps if individuals on the “hot list” are traveling legally between the islands.

Both Francis and Querrard praised the anonymous tip service Crimestoppers for its assistance in solving the territory’s crimes.

“It is important that we create an environment for people to come forward.”

Francis also touched briefly on the consent decree the department is under. They have been given five years to improve the department’s operation procedures, especially when it comes to regulations regarding evidence storage and handling.

A contract has been signed with Freid, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson to act as the independent monitor of the consent decree. Francis is determined to bring the department into compliance within three years, even though it has been given five years. The contract will cost the department $3.5 million.

Both Francis and Querrard sent public pleas to the legislature to move forward with loitering and noise level legislation that will tighten laws currently on the books, enabling the police department to enforce the regulations. The current legislation is not enforceable, they said.

Querrard thanked the community for coming forward with tips. “The person you save may be a loved one,” said Querrard. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive.”

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