Dec. 16, 2002 – According to the Police commissioner, he has "marching orders" from the governor to integrate the soon-to-be dismantled Housing Authority Police force into the regular Police Department ranks.
But that does not mean that community-oriented programs — even programs of impressive effectiveness — created and carried out by the special housing officers will be carried over as well.
According to Bill Letts, one that will not is the scuba diving program for St. Thomas housing community youngsters that has been operated as a part of the Bovoni Weed and Seed program. And that has Letts, an instructor at the St. Thomas Diving Club, where the kids have acquired their skills, upset.
"This program has had such a positive impact on the youth in this housing project that all of us who live in the area feel as though a long-standing chain has been at least 'bent.'" Letts said on Sunday. "This is primarily due to the two Housing Authority Police officers who have made the program work."
He was referring to Officer Adrien Huggins, who came up with the idea two and a half years ago, and his partner, Louis Magras, who helped bring it into being.
"As you are aware, the housing police force is being 'folded' into the regular police," Letts wrote to the Source. But as a result, he said, "this diving program is coming to an end."
Weed and Seed is an national initiative of the U.S. Justice Department, overseen locally by the U.S. Attorney's Office. As its name suggests, the program aims to weed out negative influences on youngsters and in their place plant seeds of knowledge and experience that can grow to have positive impact.
Huggins, a diver since 1989, started the Bovoni scuba program with the idea of introducing the youngsters to a new experience and showing them how diving skills could lead to careers in the local marine industry.
Last summer, he and Magras took a dozen of the participants, ages 10 to 17, to the Florida Keys for a "youth summit" of the National Black Scuba Divers Association. There were 15 other young divers there, and few of them had the credentials of the Virgin Islanders: 10 certified as master or junior master scuba divers, one as an open-water diver and one as a rescue diver. (See "Young V.I. scuba divers impress their peers".)
Letts and other club instructors opened the St. Thomas Diving Club training facilities to the Weed and Seed group. He said last summer that over the two preceding years they had certified 16 youngsters, primarily Bovoni residents — plus Magras, who received certification along with the kids. There were dropouts on both sides, Letts said — kids who quit and dive club volunteer instructors who gave up — and for many, success came only after struggle.
"Many students had to retake swim tests and exams, study questions and continue to retake until they could demonstrate they were able to handle the challenge," Letts said then. He added that those who succeeded "are responsible for their own achievements."
Of course, nothing succeeds like success. After the Florida excursion, Magras said in July, interest in the scuba program picked up, with more young people signing up to learn to dive. However, by then he and Higgins had backup — their Bovoni proteges who put their skills to work helping others, both youths and adults, to explore life beneath the surface of the sea.
The Housing Authority Police, in existence for six years, will cease to exist as of Dec. 31 for lack of funding. Most of the money for its operations has come from the federal Public Housing Drug Elimination Grant Program, which has been dismantled by the Bush administration, affecting such programs throughout the nation.
Police Commissioner Franz Christian said on Dec. 9 that, acting on directions from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, he was prepared to absorb the approximately 24 officers "as early as this week." (See "'Marching orders' say transfer housing police".)
Housing Authority Police Chief Fitzroy Williams says the presence of the force has been effective in reducing crime in the territory's public housing communities. Christian has said the Police Department will be able to provide the same level of security that the communities now have.
From Letts' perspective, "It seems we have the least regard for our youth and their future." And with regard to the positive impact of the scuba program, he wonders: "What can be done to make this more known to the people of the Virgin Islands?"

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