April 6, 2002 – Police officials told a Senate committee Thursday that community policing efforts are proving effective, allowing officers to be pro-active in high-crime areas, and that a recent federal audit report of internal procedural problems was a welcome wake-up call.
But the attorney general confirmed that violent crime for the first three months of 2002 is up from a year earlier.
And, in a departure from the agenda, Police Commissioner Franz Christian acknowledged that he is among the police personnel who moonlight under separate contract to provide security at Juan F. Luis Hospital.
The agenda for Thursday's Senate Government Operations Committee meeting was extensive — police internal procedure reforms, crime-fighting initiatives, and the status of collective bargaining agreements and funding appropriations. But the big question before the meeting convened was who would be there to testify.
Ten executive branch officials who had been "invited" to appear before the committee on March 20 but failed to show up were subpoenaed by the committee on March 22 to testify at Thursday's meeting.
All showed up: Christian; Deputy Police Commissioner Jerris Browne; Police Chief Novelle Francis; Deputy Police Chiefs Angelo Hill of St. John and Theodore Carty of St. Thomas; Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull; Ira Mills, Office of Management and Budget director; Karen Andrews, chief labor negotiator; Kevin Rodriguez, acting Personnel Division director; and Attorney General Iver Stridiron.
Equally significant: All willingly testified.
On March 19 Stridiron had written to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd saying a directive issued by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull last August — but largely ignored until then — was in force; it states that requests for executive branch officials to testify before Senate bodies must be cleared in advance through the Office of the Governor. Stridiron further told Liburd that if such officials were subpoenaed, he would direct them to appear but state only their name, department and title. (See "Administration gets tough on Senate testimony".)
At Thursday's meeting, Stridiron himself was among those testifying — although he joked that he was there in response to the subpoena but had not yet received permission from the governor to attend the 5 p.m. meeting of the Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee which followed. He excused himself several times during the day-long hearing, saying he was going to contact the governor's office regarding his testimony at the evening session, then announced that he had received permission about 4:30 p.m.
Turnbull and Mills, who frequently testify at Senate committee hearings, stated that their March 20 absence was strictly because of the governor's directive. Sen. Emmett Hansen II, the Government Operations chair, interrupted Mills, saying he had no time for nonsense. "We have had to cram two meetings into one, and I don't feel it was as productive as I would have liked," he said. "In the future, I will do whatever is necessary."
In testimony on Police Department operations, Christian said the community policing approach "allows the officers and the residents to develop trust, build camaraderie and engender mutual respect," he said. "It is my goal to expand the program, provided that I can increase the department's manpower." And Francis said community tips have helped police apprehend suspects.
Christian said he welcomed the recent report of an audit by the U.S. Inspector General's Office citing shortcoming in procedures for securing weapons from police officers who leave the force, prosecuting persons taking evidence from police custody, sanctioning officers who do not follow procedures and other matters. "It is a meaningful and systematic method of measuring the performance of the Police Department," he said.
He said steps have been taken to address the deficiencies, including verification that all weapons but one of former St. Thomas-St. John officers are in custody; reorganization of property rooms and plans for a new one in the Alexander Farrelly Justice Complex; new equipment and software to automate forensic records; a new firearms issuance policy; installation of a telecommunications and geographical mapping system to link databases on all three islands; a review of federal grants (which found that required quarterly reports had not been submitted for 16 out of 38); and hiring of a director of information systems and additional fiscal and accounting personnel.
Christian also said he is asking agencies such as the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and Our Town Frederiksted for their assistance in addressing crime issues.
Carty told the committee the U.S. Navy will have 5,000 sailors on St Thomas during V.I. Carnival activities. He said he has arranged with Navy officials for a police officer to go aboard the ship when it gets into port to give a visitor safety briefing before personnel come ashore.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan, a retired police officer, said changes are needed in the police staffing structure. A corporal's salary can be higher than that of his supervisor, a captain, based on years of service, he said, and this has caused friction between the two police unions, the Police Benevolent Association and the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union. Christian offered the view that on a scale of 1-10, the morale of PBA members is 7, while that of LESU members is 1.
Bryan brought up the matter of off-duty police officers working privately while off duty. Christian said officers are on individual six-month contracts to provide 24-hour security support at Juan F. Luis Hospital. When Bryan asked who was supervising the hospital police shifts, Christian responded that he, Lt. Reginald McFarlane and Chief Novelle Francis each man an eight-hour shift when off duty from their regular jobs.
"I don't have a problem with additional duties," Bryan said, but he noted that the hospital pays police officers more for their services than does Hugh Dalton Associates, the advertising and public relations firm that organizes the semiweekly Harbour Night events in Frederiksted. Dalton pays $2,600 a year for a "blanket permit" for police services, Bryan said; he said the officers should be paid on a direct overtime basis by Dalton, too.
The Avis reported that Christian told its reporter that his having a second job should be of little concern to lawmakers. "He said he was aware of other commissioners keeping second jobs and he was unable to determine why his circumstances were such an issue," the newspaper reported.
Referring to comments about a lack of funding for salary increases and pending arbitration, Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel said, "We see a lot of our employees having to take part time jobs … If we compensate our people properly, they won't need to go out and work two to three jobs."
Stridiron said the Justice Department is hiring additional assistant attorneys general and beefing up the legal staff. "St. Croix district continues to be the major problem" as far as filling vacancies, he said, adding, "My goal is to recruit from within the V.I." And he said a "cold case squad" is being developed with police to focus on 60 unsolved cases on record over the last 10 years. "We are bringing back retired police detectives to look at old cases," he said.
Stridiron said his department does not plea bargain in prosecuting gun-related crimes and that Project Exile has been effective in curbing defiant behavior within the local prison system. Under Project Exile, anyone convicted of gun-related offenses is sent to the maximum-security Wallens Ridge prison in Virginia. It costs the V.I. government $60 a day to house prisoners there who are convicted in Territorial Court, he said. For anyone prosecuted through the federa
l court system, he said, the territory would not incur the cost, but so far that has not happened.
Stridiron confirmed statistics in a release from Hansen's office that there were 15 gun-related crimes recorded in January, 11 in February and 13 in March — compared with 9 in January, 8 in February and 7 in March a year ago. Last year, the territory recorded a total of 142 gun-related crimes.
"It tells me we are losing the fight on crime," Sen. Roosevelt David said. "We need to bring in the National Guard and bring in outside help."
The Gun Control Act of 2001, introduced by Hansen, became law last Dec. 29. During the hearing, Hansen showed a video displaying signs warning of the increased penalties for crimes involving firearms. One posted at Tutu Park Mall reads: "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in Federal Prison. Report Illegal Guns to 777-8711 or 911."
Stridiron and Christian said other initiatives could not be presented to the senators in an open forum, but that they would detail them in a non-public format.
In testimony on other matters, Rodriquez said the Personnel Division has processed more than 1,504 salary increase Notices of Personnel Action, or NOPA's. Andrews said if retirees do not receive increases in their benefits or NOPA's, they should contact the departments in which they worked to verify that they meet eligibility requirements.
On the matter of appropriations, Christian told the committee that nearly $3 million approved by the Senate for hiring polices officers and a psychologist, purchasing vehicles and upgrading the Motor Vehicle Bureau has not been received. Mills said the government does not have sufficient funds to make the money available.
All committee members were present for the roll call: Sens. Bryan, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Pickard-Samuel, David, Carlton Dowe, Hansen II and David Jones. Also present was Sen. Celestino White, a non-member.
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