Home News Local news POLICE, FIRE SERVICE AND CRITICS CITE PROBLEMS

POLICE, FIRE SERVICE AND CRITICS CITE PROBLEMS

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March 26, 2003 – Police Commissioner-designate Elton Lewis got his feet wet Wednesday in his first Senate appearance, at a meeting of the new Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has nominated Lewis to replace Franz Christian, who was relieved of his duties by the governor on March 18.
The meeting was called by Sen. Lorraine Berry, committee chair, as a "continuation" of the first two sessions, held on St. Croix on March 11 and 12. The objective on both islands was to get an overview from top safety and security personnel and union representatives of the territory's crime and homeland security situations.
Berry said testimony on St. Croix left her with concerns about the Police Department, not just about increases in crime but about police officers' roles in some cases. "We need to know your capabilities to fulfill your mandates," she told Lewis on Wednesday.
Lewis responded that "there isn't anything wrong with the V.I. Police Department that cannot be remedied … There are problems, but they are fixable."
While the person in the top police post has changed, the problems remain familiar: lack of funding, personnel and crime enforcement.
Lewis made it clear that he plans some structural changes. "It is my professional opinion that the Police Department must be run and streamlined like an efficient business," he said. "While I am not going to dazzle you with glossy paint, I am not a proponent of throwing the baby out with the bath water."
He said the department's problems can be remedied through "reorganization, enhancement of deployment patterns and strategies, proper command and control, and an appropriate injection of funding and sensible planning for future growth."
Addressing the matter of funding, the senators came up with many questions, not all of which had answers. Berry had an itemized list of 24th Legislature appropriations to the department. Lewis and the other police officials present could not specify which of them had been received.
The Fiscal Year 2002 budget approved for the department was $29.4 million; this was augmented by $4.8 million in individual appropriations for items including overtime, project Exile, vehicles and personnel on all three islands. Lewis and Bruce Hamlin, acting commissioner, said they could identify some, but not all, appropriations that had been received but promised they would submit a complete list to Berry soon.
The list of things needed but lacking was long: training in handling hazardous materials, proper communication tools, a trained bomb squad. Hamlin said no funding was available to send officers for bomb-detection training, and so "we have no bomb technician." He said the department borrows a bomb-sniffing dog from the private firm Dogs On Guard Security (D.O.G.S.) to respond to bomb threats called in to schools and other places. Berry reminded him of the $10,000 fine for carrying out a bomb hoax.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone asked Lewis why the Police Department cannot retain the cadets that it trains, saying that many officers leave the department after two or three years for more lucrative employment. Lewis said it is common police practice elsewhere for officers to sign a five-year contract and that he is considering this for the territory. Malone suggested "taking all the chauffeurs and putting them on the street."
Sen. Emmett Hansen II asked about security along the territory's shorelines and whether the department is getting its fair share of federal border security funding, an issue Hansen and Berry have raised before. Police Chief Novelle Francis said the department and the FBI are part of a Joint Terrorism Task Force and that the two agencies are in "constant communication." However, he said, while the department is making progress, he is not comfortable with its level of readiness.
Info-tech official critical of police
Roy McFarlane, special assistant to the governor for information and technology, gave a blistering report citing what he termed Police Department lack of cooperation with his office in setting up communication systems. McFarlane said his office has spent extensive time and money to assist the police but the department has not done its part.
McFarlane said his office is responsible for maintaining the Government Wide Area Network (GWAN) and overseeing Y2K millennium security for all government agencies. He said an assessment of police computers and 911 communications showed the department had a few computers installed but no network system throughout the department. He said the system need to be upgraded.
Further, McFarlane said, his office provided the necessary funding and technical support to communicate with GWAN, but "the Police Department did not make that a priority."
He submitted to the committee a letter from Networks Inc., the company supplying the department with radios and other communication equipment. The letter included a chronology of company officials' frustration in their efforts to install the equipment and 911 wireless links. The letter said the company had come under criticism from St. Croix police officers complaining that using two-way hand-held radios endangers their work.
"The time has come for the Police Department to be accountable for technological needs that they were entrusted with," McFarlane said. "It has become very disturbing to hear the VIPD attributing the blame for the smart zone equipment not working." The "equipment" consists of the mobile radios that officers complained about.
Lewis said a specialist hired last May to resolve the problems had applied for a $2.4 million federal grant to update the police communication systems.
Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards asked how much the department had spent on its public relations campaign contracted to Austin Advertising. Hamlin said he didn't have the figure with him but that it was funded by the Public Finance Authority.
Richards also said: "We in the territory are being terrorized now. We are short 20 officers on St. Croix, and we have no security."
Fire Service 'not prepared'
The Fire Service director, Ian Williams Sr., did not have any more encouraging funding news for the committee. The Fire Service was appropriated $13.4 million in the FY 2003 budget, he said, but that has been cut by 5 percent — or $670,372 — and this limits the agency's ability to fill the staffing vacancies provided for in the budget.
A grant application will be submitted by the April 11 deadline seeking funds to provide safety equipment and training for officers, he said.
As far as preparedness, Williams said flat-out that the Fire Service "is not prepared for operating in a weapons of mass destruction environment. We lack vital equipment, training and funding to combat hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction."
Also, he said, firefighters' medical insurance doesn't cover "Hazmat" responders, nor does Workers' Compensation. He said Fire Service personnel as "first responders" do not receive hazardous duty pay as do police personnel.
Williams said the Local Emergency Planning Committee has an arrangement with the Hovensa refinery for Hovensa to provide emergency assistance in situations where control is beyond the capability of primary responding agencies.
He said the Fire Service has about 30 Hazmat team members on St. Thomas, and about 15 trained responders on St. Croix. Members are trained and qualify at different levels, but none are certified, he said.
Sen. Carlton Dowe, a onetime Fire Service director, questioned how much "homeland security" the territory has with no fire station at Bordeaux on St. Thomas's West End. "Are you serious about the Bordeaux fire station?" he asked. He pointed out that the West End has one road linking it to the rest of the islan
d and 15,000 residents there "with no protection."
Sen. Roosevelt David praised Lewis, and Sen. Celestino A. White criticized David for doing so.
"I'm not going to join the glee club," White, a former St. Thomas police chief, said. "I don't care about homeland security at the risk of local protection. Things are bad." He accused police of operating in a timid manner, afraid to answer questions because of "security reasons." White elaborated: "We want the criminals to get information, to be so confused that they think apprehension is smart."
Berry, saying she wasn't part of any "glee club," asked the police officials to address two incidents.
First, she read them a letter she had received from a woman who had called 911 several times and received no response but managed to get the vehicle license number of a person who had taken things out of her car. Deputy Chief Theodore Carty said he wasn't aware of the situation but the woman should report the license number.
Second, Berry cited a case of a person being assaulted in the Divi Casino on St. Croix, but there being no police record and nothing on the police blotter. Carty said a complete report was filed in that case and that the information was recorded on the blotter.
The committee was to reconvene in the afternoon following a lunch break, to hear further testimony including that of police and fire union representatives.
Berry called for a moment of silence at the beginning of the meeting as she read the names of Virgin Islanders serving their country in Iraq.
Committee members attending the morning session were Sens. Berry, Dowe, Hansen, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Malone and Ronald Russell. Sen. David Jones was absent. Also present were four non-committee members, Sens. David, Louis Hill, Richards and White.

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