March 11, 2003 – Since 2000, the Police Department has made arrests in 56 of the 128 homicides in the territory, according to Police Commissioner Franz Christian.
Christian told senators at the first hearing of the Legislature's new Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee on Tuesday that several problems contribute to the high percentage of unsolved crimes. Among them, he said, are a dearth of community assistance in fingering suspects, the lack of a territorial crime lab and inadequate funding of the department.
"It is a community issue," he said. "Once we continue to build confidence in the Police Department, I think citizens will come forward with information. Crimes are incidents of opportunity."
The hearing, on St. Croix, was called to discuss crime and homeland security in the territory.
Christian said several projects are coming down the pike to help improve police capabilities. One, he said, is the implementation of an automatic fingerprinting system on St. Croix that will be linked to the one already in use on St. Thomas and St. John.
Also being implemented or planned, he said, are a ballistics program to help officers more readily identify firearms and link them to crimes; an upgraded communication system on St. Croix including police radios and the erection of a 150-foot tower; the establishment of a crime lab and computerizing of criminal record keeping.
Sen. Louis Hill called the unsolved killings a "major concern" and asked why police have been unable to solve the cases. "The response is simple," Christian said. "We did not have the funding in order to correct the problem. Funding has been, and continues to be, our greatest setback."
Good news, Christian said, is that the Public Finance Authority recently provided some supplemental financial assistance to complete several projects, including the installation of surveillance cameras in the territory's downtown areas.
The committee's St. Croix hearing will continue on Wednesday afternoon and will deal with cruise ship industry officials' concerns about crime on the island, cited as the primary reason that Carnival Cruise Lines stopped visits by two of its vessels to St. Croix last spring.
"No tourist on the planet travels to an unsafe, unhealthy, unwelcoming destination," Sen. Lorraine Berry, the committee chair, told police officials Tuesday. "Tourism and crime, like oil and water, do not mix."
Berry cited recent media headlines about two police officers under scrutiny in shooting incidents. Last week, an officer shot a man in the back at Times Square as he ran from police. Another officer who allegedly killed a man during the commission of a crime in 2001 is under investigation for shooting at a man recently following a car accident.
"Some officers have been linked to criminal activity, but no police officers have been fired," Berry said. She noted that police policy prevents the public from knowing the names of officers accused of wrongdoing. "This does not bear well with the community," she said, "especially when people are concerned with the safety of their own lives."
Hill said the Police Department appears to be "under attack by the press and other members of the community."
"I think it might be out of frustration of your inability to solve these heinous crimes," he said. "Rather than focusing on the criminal element in society, they're turning around and focusing on the police and accusing them of shooting people and whatnot."
Christian, when asked specifically about the two recent shooting incidents involving police officers, would say only that the matter is under investigation and that more information will be disclosed at the "appropriate time."
More police officers are badly needed, Christian said. He said there are 23 positions open on St. Croix and 17 openings in the St. Thomas-St. John district. But it has been hard to recruit new officers, he said, and the government is considering importing officers from Puerto Rico to alleviate the shortage. Puerto Rico has agreed to assist the Virgin Islands in setting up a program modeled on a successful one there.
Sen. Carlton Dowe said that bringing police officers in from Puerto Rico could introduce a new set of problems to St. Croix. Even if new officers are added, he said, a restructuring of the Police Department is needed to comply with a federal mandate to step up homeland security and emergency response preparedness.
Adj. Gen. Cleave McBean, commanding officer of the V.I. National Guard and also executive director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said Christian might consider adding an anti-terrorism unit. He noted that the local National Guard is not a first-response unit in case of a terrorist attack.
In addressing homeland security, McBean also voiced the familiar complaint of low funding. VITEMA oversees the territory's all-hazards emergency management program. Despite the attention on homeland security issues after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, very little federal money has made its way to the territory for that purpose.
"The reality is that there is a lack of financial and new technological resources provided to the states and territories to assist with emergency preparedness," McBean said. "This body needs to put money on the side for eventualities, although that's probably a hard concept at this time to grasp."
The Legislature appropriated $300,000 to fund homeland security initiatives, but only $90,000 of that has been released so far, McBean said. The situation, he said, could have an impact on whether the federal government will dole out additional dollars.
In spite of underfunding, McBean said, VITEMA has established a Homeland Security Council, a strategy and an advisory system and has updated the Territorial Emergency Operations Plan.
Sen. Ronald Russell asked how a U.S. war with Iraq could threaten the security of the Virgin Islands.
McBean said the risk of an attack on the territory is minimal, but the Hovensa oil refinery on St. Croix is of "great interest to the Department of Defense." He said Hovensa has its own contingency plan that includes the utilization of active-duty military personnel, rather than the National Guard.
Committee members present at Tuesday's proceedings were Sens. Berry, Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Russell. Non-member also present were Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Hill, Raymond "Usie" Richards and Celestino A. White Sr.

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