Gun violence has been an issue in the territory for decades. In 2019 the Office of Gun Violence Prevention was created. Its plan for progress was aired Monday at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, chaired by Sen. Angel Bolques.
Office of Gun Violence Prevention Director Antonio Emanuel testified that the Gun Violence Reduction Approach Plan “is separated into three sections: Violence Prevention; Violence Intervention; and Community Engagement.”
He said the primary focus of the plan is violence intervention and talked about a member of his staff in the high schools “walking the halls, talking to students, talking to teachers.”
Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory and Javan James, however, did not appear convinced that the office was doing enough to stop the flow of blood. On Nov. 5, St. Thomas registered its ninth homicide of 2022 — the territory’s 31st. The USVI has averaged 40 homicides per year for the past 20 years. An average murder victim is a 27-year-old man with multiple gunshot wounds and no explanation.
James and Frett-Gregory questioned Emanuel, who has been on the job since March, about how he has collected data. Frett-Gregory said a lot of work was yet to be done so the government would have the data necessary to track children with behavior problems.
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger said she was originally against the formation of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention because she thought it duplicated other government efforts but would now support it. She asked if the office helped the V.I. Police Department solve any of the “hundreds of unsolved homicides” in the territory.
Emanuel replied that the office was more focused on the present and prevention. Heylinger then asked if it was shown that criminals did not get away with murder, wouldn’t fewer people commit the crime?
“The Office of Gun Violence is not a law enforcement arm or organization. We do not investigate shootings, arrest suspects or confiscate weapons,” Emanuel replied.
Sen. Novelle Francis asked whether loitering in the territory contributed to the crime problems. Emanuel replied that it did and that he hoped the police department would enforce all the loitering laws on the books. Francis, a former police officer, has been trying to get stricter loitering laws passed.
Emanuel testified that the Office of Gun Violence Prevention Team consists of three main positions on each island: the Survivor Engagement Specialist, the Violence Interrupter, and the Community Engagement Coordinator. “Currently, we have a Community Engagement Coordinator on St. Thomas and a Violence Interrupter on St. Croix. There are candidates in the system to be hired for the other positions,” he said.
“Violence prevention refers to the elimination or reduction of the underlying causes and risk factors that lead to violence,” said Emanuel. “Violence prevention efforts are designed to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. Violence intervention efforts, on the other hand, are designed to prevent the reoccurrence of violence or intervene and prevent imminent acts of violence. Violence prevention efforts are most often targeted towards children and youth whereas violence intervention efforts tend to be focused on the people who are at the greatest immediate risk of violence, which according to data are typically young adults.”
Kimberly Berry, chief legal counsel for the Department of Human Services, testified on the state of the Crime Victims Compensation Program.
Victims of violent crime may apply to the program for assistance with medical bills, lost wages, funeral expenses, lost support for eligible dependents, and pain and suffering. Victims must file an intent to apply within 90 days and a final application within two years of the crime. The maximum award is $25,000, with limits within categories.
Berry said that during a budget hearing this summer it was stated that the compensation program reviewed 58 applications in 2022 and approved 54 claims. Of the reviewed claims, the program approved $391,880 in payments. However, because of budget constraints, the program had no funds to pay the awards, she said.
“I am happy to report that since the last hearing, Human Services has provided $208,329 in award payments to 73 individuals. Those were awards approved going back several years,” Berry said.
Finally, the committee heard from the Fire Emergency and Medical Service where disparities in salaries were discussed.