A handful of business and community leaders gave testimony Thursday to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety regarding crime on St. Croix.
The hearing was poorly attended as many senators were out of the territory at a conference. Sen. Kenneth Gittens was the only member of the committee present. Although not on the committee, Sens. Terrence Nelson and Nerieda Rivera-O’Reilly also participated in the hearing.
Many of the testifiers warned the committee that crime was clearly increasing, making it more difficult to run businesses on the island.
Jack Pickle, owner of the Club Comanche Hotel, said he was aware of an increased police presence in Christiansted.
The petty theft is almost constant,” he said. “You can’t put a cell phone down on a table without expecting it to be lifted.”
Julie Printy, general manager of the Palms at Pelican Cove, said this was the first time in 14 years of business that she has had a guest robbed at gunpoint – and that it has happened more than once.
Printy said she hesitates now when guests ask her if it is safe to go into Christiansted at night for dinner. She tells them to go but to call the cab from the restaurant and have it pick them up at the door.
Several solutions were discussed during the hearing, including fixing the territory’s loitering law.
Sana Joseph, owner of the IHOP restaurant in Sunny Isle, said she frequently has to call the police to remove people from her property often only to have the officers tell her their hands are tied. She said they tell her that they can only act if the person commits a crime.
This, Joseph said, leaves her in the position of having to argue and negotiate with loiterers, many of whom she claimed suffered from mental illnesses, to get them to leave and stop bothering her customers.
“I feel like I need a psychology degree because I have to convince somebody why they can’t sit on my garbage can and that can’t be their house or their bed for the evening while my patrons are coming in and out,” she said.
Both Gittens and Rivera-O’Reilly expressed frustration about the loitering law, saying that they frequently hear that it is too vague. The senators said they have not received details from the attorney general’s office on how to fix the law.
Gittens, a former police officer, said he understands the frustration experienced by police who make an arrest, only to have prosecutors decline to pursue the case because of problems with the law. He said officers shouldn’t use this as an excuse not to make an arrest, however, especially when it comes to loitering.
“I don’t want officers to find reasons not to enforce the law,” Gittens said.
Another possible step discussed was deploying more security cameras around the island. Roger Dewey, president of the St. Croix Foundation, said the existing cameras, which his organization secured the funds for, were outdated and needed to be replaced.
He said the old cameras were analog rather than digital, and he was not sure how many were still even functional.
Dewey also urged the senators to begin considering new locations for the security cameras in Christiansted, because the light poles on which they are currently deployed will be taken down when the effort to bury power lines in town is complete.
Sen. Nelson was not convinced of the usefulness of cameras, however. He said that criminals simply cover up before committing a crime now. He advocated for a greater physical police presence instead.
“Boots on the ground makes more sense,” Nelson said.
Davidson Charlemagne, president of the St. Croix Festival Committee, advocated a significantly more aggressive approach.
While discussing the rash of crimes that occur during festival time on St. Croix, Charlemagne suggested the police preemptively arrest known “trouble makers” and hold them in jail during the holiday season.
“They have rights but rights can be bent,” he said in response to objections made by some of the police officers present.
Gittens reminded Charlemagne that he was on the record and he may want to temper his remarks, but Charlemagne stuck to his point, arguing that it didn’t make sense to allow a few individuals to ruin holiday events for everyone else and give the territory a reputation for lawlessness.
“If we keep on babying these individuals and they keep messing up our events, it comes to a point where it hurts not only me, but also those who invest in these events and who come from all over. So what are we going to do? We going to sit back and let the criminals win? I think at some point we have to stand up and say enough is enough,” he said.
St. Croix Chief of Police James Parris was in attendance for the hearing and was asked on several occasions why the police were not doing more. He said the fundamental issue was a lack of manpower.
He said that funding to hire 70 police officers had been included in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, but the department has struggled to attract applicants to fill those slots.
Parris said he was not sure if those positions would be funded again in his next budget.
He did not want to discuss issues of compensation, saying it was a union issue, but after repeated questions from Rivera-O’Reilly, Parris conceded that he believed entry-level pay for officers was too low to be competitive.
He said new officers are paid around $29,000 a year before overtime and that overtime payments would likely be cut in the coming year due to the government’s financial troubles.
Parris said he believed $50,000 a year including overtime was a more reasonable level of pay.
No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing.