After Coki Killings, Damage Control from Tourism, VIPD

Cruise officials are keeping the V.I. government on a short leash after a deadly shootout at Coki Point killed a local resident and a 14-year-old tourist this week, asking for weekly updates on such things as safety issues and clean-up plans for Coki Point Beach before all activity returns to normal.

While there’s currently no talk of any ships pulling out of the territory, a few of the cruise lines suspended their on-shore excursions to Coki after Monday’s rampage. The 14-year-old girl was visiting the island with her family as passengers aboard one of the Carnival ships.

After a week’s worth of damage control — including frequent talks with the cruise lines, internal meetings and media interviews — Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty and Police Commissioner Novelle Francis Jr. headed to the mainland Friday for a meeting facilitated by the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association. While the two said they were "well received" and praised for their immediate efforts in responding to the situation, cruise officials said they will still be actively monitoring how quickly the government responds to the variety of concerns aired during the discussions.

"They have asked for weekly updates, including a timeline as to the implementation of the Police Department’s action plan and where we are in implementing an accelerated cleanup plan for Coki Point," Nicholson-Doty said in a conference call Saturday afternoon. "So the next seven to 10 days is going to be critical."

The weekly updates will continue for at least the next month, and during that time, shore excursion groups from the cruise lines will be out and about, "looking carefully at the destination and what’s going on here in light of the incident," Francis added. VIPD has spent the last few days working on a safety and security plan for the cruise ships, which Francis said basically centers around flooding the streets — particularly "violence-prone" neighborhoods, tourist attractions and community events — with officers.

There’s also going to be increased mobile patrols, and upgraded surveillance cameras with 24-hour monitoring and an emphasis on intelligence gathering, which Francis said will target known associates of high-profile criminals and their behind-the-scene connections. Visitors will also be carefully monitored and cruise ships will be notified when events, such as funerals, are going on.

While it has recently become commonplace for officers to attend local funerals in an effort to curb any further criminal activity, officials have said they were not notified about the one at Coki Point Cemetery that provided the somber backdrop for Monday’s shooting. Even so, making sure that patrols are in place and functioning effectively is a key component to the department’s strategy, Francis said Saturday, responding to published reports that officers stationed at the beach the day after the incident were not out on foot, but sitting in their car with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on.

One officer has since been "reprimanded," while other strategies — rotating personnel and using scooters to minimize "the opportunity for them to be in their cars" — have been put in place to make sure the area remains safe, Francis explained. Abandoned vehicles and overgrown bushes in the Coki area will be taken care of, while residents and local vendors will be engaged in discussions on further safety measures, he added.

On the Tourism side, the next 30 to 45 days will focus on how the department is going to respond to the media’s coverage of the incident. Along with local reports, the shooting has been monitored through regional and national news wires, television networks and other publications. Nicholson-Doty said there’s been more than 150 stories so far, and since they’ve come out, Tourism has activated is online news update site, continued to send out statements to its trade partners and monitored social networking sites to keep pace with the reports.

Next up is rolling out a $1.2 million strategy that includes bringing various cruise, online and print publications into the territory in an effort to garner some more positive press.

"The FCCA was very good yesterday at offering to provide the opportunity to the U.S. Virgin Islands to outline in their industry trade publications our strategy as it pertains to visitor safety and security, along with an editorial in their online newsletter," Nicholson-Doty said.

She added that officials are "optimistic" these efforts will allay the concerns of the FCCA and bring people back to one of the territory’s "extremely beautiful natural beaches." Preserving economic activity in the area also extends to nearby businesses, such as Coral World, which has so far borne the brunt of the suspended shore excursions and cancelled reservations from hotel guests.

While criminal activity at Coki has been a cause for concern over the years, many residents — and some of the national media reports — have pointed out that Monday’s incident, where a tourist was involved, is isolated and generally not the norm. Further, the shooting occurred off the beach and more on the main road, prompting many to say that it should not be associated with the legitimate businesses in the area.

In a recent letter to the Source, one anonymous Coral World employee writes that the burial was on private land, so businesses in the area should not be penalized for the incident, which they added "has torn up the tourism industry for us."

"We know that we have to do everything to ensure the economic stability of the area," Nicholson-Doty said on the subject Saturday. "And we are committed to that, and ensuring that it is also safe for use by both visitors and residents."

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