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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, May 23, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentSt. John Safety Hearing Endures Terse Exchange

St. John Safety Hearing Endures Terse Exchange

Police Commissioner Ray Martinez initially refused to answer questions from Sen. Franklin D. Johnson on Wednesday after the senator said police were “cowards.” (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

A routine Senate hearing on safety issues and emergency response on St. John veered briefly into the danger zone Wednesday afternoon as the police commissioner was forced by subpoena to testify.

A scowling Commissioner Ray Martinez answered questions on police staffing, 911 calls, noise complaints, and security cameras from members of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety until it came to Sen. Franklin D. Johnson’s turn.

Johnson had derided Martinez at a November hearing where St. Johnians complained about safety hazards on the island. Johnson, using language unusually crude for legislative hearings, said Martinez was avoiding the hearing out of fear of criticism.

“It look like the cowards are the cops. They ain’t have the balls to come inside here today and talk — just even listen to you. But I’m really fed up of keep coming to these hearings and Ray Martinez not showing up,” Johnson said in November. “I’m not going to go to these meetings unless Ray Martinez is subpoenaed.”

Johnson, who said voting to approve Martinez as police commissioner was the worst vote he’d ever made in the Senate, shouted into the microphone in the November hearing: “He have failed us. I will say, he have failed us. Where is he today? People is living in fear.”

Johnson made a motion that Martinez be subpoenaed for the next hearing, meaning the commissioner was required to appear by law. The motion was unanimously approved.

“When the leader of the police department don’t even send one representative here, that tells me it’s time for a new commissioner. If he’s retired on the job, submit your retirement and leave. Let someone run the place. We cannot live like this. I don’t accept this,” Johnson said. “If we have any more hearings with Commissioner Ray Martinez it’s by subpoena because we’ve called him four times already.”

When Johnson asked about the caseload on St. John Wednesday, Martinez stiffened and glowered at Committee Chair Sen. Kenneth Gittens: “Mr. Chair, because of the insolence that Senator Johnson relayed towards me and my team at the last hearing I will answer every other senator in here but him.”

Gittens said he had hoped a private meeting before the hearing had cleared up the issue. Martinez, representing a public agency, didn’t have the leeway to refuse a senator’s inquiries, Gittens said.

“The senator asked a question about the Virgin Islands Police Department. It is not personal and we respect a response from the Virgin Islands Police Department regarding such,” Gittens said evenly.

“Good,” Martinez replied. “I’m not answering this question.”

He said he’d file a formal complaint against Johnson while noting no other senator objected to Johnson’s derogatory remarks, which he said affected the entire police department.

Johnson “went off on a tirade. He outright insulted, demeaned myself and my team. Now you expect me to come back in here under subpoena, OK, without putting on the record that this committee had correspondence back then that we were not available. The people of St. John and responding to any and every member of this committee is important to the VIPD.”

After a back and forth about Johnson’s comments and Martinez’s obligations, the commissioner said he’d swallow his pride and answer the senator’s questions.

The senator smirked as he asked the question again.

Martinez said VIPD was investigating 68 cases as of the end of 2023. He said security cameras were working on St. John but declined to say how many nor where they were, except to say current coverage on the island was “woefully inadequate.” He acknowledged noise complaints were a problem and had not been addressed as they should be.

New cameras to monitor stop signs were on the way, he said. These cameras would monitor for rolling stops at stop signs. He could not say when they might be installed, however.

The department was actively recruiting on St. John as currently only three or four officers actually live on the island, he said.

Senators said they’d heard complaints about parts of Cruz Bay operating as an open-air drug market and fretted about the appearance of increased crime on St. John. Martinez said statistics could be tricky. The ShotSpotter technology — which allows police to know where gunfire has occurred — was installed in 2023. That year, police investigated 127 gunfire reports on St. John compared to 32 shots fired incidents in 2022. That could be more gunfire or just better surveillance.

Overall, VIPD fielded more than 33,000 calls for service in 2023 territory-wide.

Undocumented migrant activity was also a difficult one to track, he said. In 2023, VIPD encountered 627 undocumented migrants on St. John. In January alone this year, they have come in contact with more than 150 undocumented migrants, with three alleged human smugglers arrested.

But that’s likely a drop in the bucket as the real number of undocumented migrants on St. John is likely closer to 2,000, Martinez said. “That’s 627 that we made contact with in 2023. That’s what we know of. By our estimation, more than 60 percent of the individuals who are coming here we don’t know of.”

Being able to keep up with and hunt down smugglers was key, he said.

“One of our shortcomings is that we are willing to do more but will not be able to the extent possible — and that’s on the marine side of the house — until we have the go fast,” Martinez said. He hoped the speed boat would be available in early March.

Other matters discussed included some 911 calls on the east end of St. John being routed to the BVI, noise complaints, the Cruz Bay police station potentially temporarily relocating to old Chase bank location, areas where police coverage on the island is weak, and people complaining about being ticketed for having illegally tinted license plate covers.

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