March 19, 2003 – Rumors about the dismissal of Police Commissioner Franz Christian had been "running rampant" for a while prior to his being relieved of duty on Tuesday, according to a longtime member of the St. Croix police force.
Police Detective Gregory Bennerson said on Wednesday morning that the general feeling among officers about the action taken by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull was neither shock nor surprise. But "those rumors did provide a certain amount of uneasiness among the officers for quite a while," he added.
Police realize the changes are not under their control, he said, and "officers are trying to maintain respect for whoever is at the helm."
Personally, Bennerson added, "After serving under at least seven commissioners, I've learned that you have no control whatsoever."
He said the "crux" of the crime situation in the territory is whether the local government provides resources to help police do their jobs. At two Senate Committee of the Whole hearings last week, officers — and Christian — cited fiscal constraints as the biggest problem facing the Police Department. Low morale, a poor public image and a lack of community support also were listed as problems.
"The complaints are not fundamentally different than what they have been over the last 20 years," Bennerson said. However, he added, these problems seem at their worst right now, and funding is critical.
"The new commissioner has the dubious task of trying to work within those realms and also improve the image of the department, which is seriously corroded at this point," Bennerson said.
The governor named Assistant Commissioner Bruce Hamlin to serve as acting commissioner until Monday morning but named former St. Croix Police Chief Elton Lewis as his designee to succeed Francis. Turnbull said in a release on Tuesday that he would submit Lewis's nomination to the Senate "within 24 hours, with a call for quick confirmation."
Bennerson said he anticipates changes within the department as a result of the change in leadership. "Lewis knows the department and he does have a military approach. I think he will bring a change. But once again, it behooves all the structure behind him to give the necessary resources," Bennerson said.
Lewis, who retired from the force with the rank of captain, said on Wednesday morning that he will make a review of the Police Department from the top down to determine where reorganization needs to take place. He said the process should not take very long. "Obviously there are some problems — communication control and budgetary issues," he said.
He would not comment specifically about the budget problems but said he does not "anticipate they were any different when I was at the Police Department."
Lewis said he will take a two-pronged approach — to leadership problems within the department and to the crime situation on the streets. He said he would not project a time frame for addressing those issues until he has had an opportunity to analyze the situation.
He also said he is looking forward to a constructive working relationship with the community.
St. Croix Women's Coalition co-director Clema Lewis said she is looking forward to forging that relationship and hopes that domestic violence and sexual assault issues continue to be a priority.
"We had a good working relationship with Franz [Christian]," she said. "His door was always open, and we could go to him and discuss domestic violence and sexual assault issues with him."
Clema Lewis added: "To the new commissioner, I hope he also opens the lines of communication with our agency and is willing to have a good working relationship with us."
She said the coalition's work is difficult without the support of the Police Department, and that the police need the coalition's help as well.
St. Croix Chamber of Commerce President Frank Fox said he does not know Lewis personally, but he, too, is hopeful for the future. While the rise in crime in the last year or so wasn't caused by Christian, he said, "we certainly weren't making much progress toward curbing it."
Crime rates are up, Fox said, and "the man at the top has to take some responsibility for it."

Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here