April 1, 2003 – Federal and local officials kicked off a new initiative on Tuesday, one handed down by the Bush administration to reduce violent crimes involving weapons.
Project Safe Neighborhood is a "national program started in response to violent crime sweeping the nation," Paul L. Gimenez, the governor's chief legal, told an audience of about 200 local and federal law-enforcement officials at Carambola Beach Resort on St. Croix.
About $270,000 has been awarded to the territory to implement the plan locally. This will include a media outreach program, the purchase of equipment to aid police in gathering ballistics information about firearms used in crimes, and money to research areas in which weapons offenses are most commonly committed. (See "Federal-V.I. program aims to curb gun violence".)
Three days of training for law-enforcement officials are scheduled for this week at Carambola.
The plan involves the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Attorney General's Office, the Police Department and the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"The goal is to marry federal and territorial resources together to combat violent crimes using guns," Gimenez said. He is chairing the PSN executive committee, which oversees the implementation of grant funding provisions.
U.S. Attorney David Nissman said a special team of prosecutors and police officers has been put together to address the territory's violent crime problem. Since 2000, 128 killings have been reported in the territory; arrests have been made in 56 of the cases.
"We're not solving all these homicides, but we can," Nissman said. "We can only have great success if law enforcement gets together. We can accomplish anything we set our minds to."
Attorney General Iver Stridiron had a prior engagement and could not make the meeting. Assistant Attorney General Cornelius Evans, speaking in his stead, said the local and federal Justice Departments have a "good working relationship. The PSN program is "important to the community, important to the community's livelihood and important to the way of life here in the Virgin Islands," Evans said.
He pointed out that the territorial government has two prosecutors dedicated to handling gun-offense cases and has had some success in that effort, including a recent first-degree murder conviction.
Evans said Stridiron has made sweeping changes to the way gun crimes are prosecuted, taking a "scorched earth" approach, meaning that all offenses are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Stridiron would rather hire police, prosecutors
Stridiron, speaking from his office on Tuesday afternoon, seemed less enthusiastic about Project Safe Neighborhoods. He said the money could be better spent putting more police officers on the streets — action which has been sought for months by several St. Croix private-sector organizations.
"That would be a deterrent in and of itself," Stridiron said. He said "bad guys in the street" are less interested in television and radio advertisements about new initiatives. "What we can do is put money into hiring police officers and prosecutors," he said.
Stridiron pointed to Project Exile, a program that began about two years ago that was touted as a severe crackdown on crime involving firearms. Under the program, anyone convicted of using a gun in a violent crime or who is found in illegal possession of a firearm would be sentenced to do time in an off-island prison for at least five years.
"Project Exile has been an abject failure," Stridiron said. "Not one person has been sent away."
Referring to Project Safe Neighborhoods, he continued, "I don't want to be a part of getting up in front of cameras and microphones" prematurely, before the program has proven its effectiveness.
He said he does not know what happened with the Project Exile plan, which was "being run essentially by the feds."
"Once we said 'We're a part of it,' nothing happened," he said. "The only thing I saw them do was put up signs."
Nissman, too, said he was not "anxious" to "go out" to the public before the plan is fully in place. "Let's show the community results," he said.
Stridiron said an immediate return on the investment will not likely be seen, but the program will have a greater impact on finding where guns are coming from. "The strength of this task force really should be the research arm of it," he said.
Guns come into the territory from several places, including Florida, New York and Puerto Rico, Stridiron said, but his office is relegated to the Virgin Islands jurisdiction. "PSN can be that adjunct to go to other states and give advance warning of how the guns are coming in," he said.
Memorandum of understanding under revision
Evans said there is a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Attorney's Office and the V.I. Attorney General's Office that sets forth policies and guidelines for the program.
However, on Tuesday afternoon Stridiron said his office has not signed off on the MOU as yet, and in fact is reviewing and revising it. He said he was not satisfied with the initial terms and conditions set out by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The main problem with the first draft, he said, was that it called for all gun cases to be referred to the task force, comprising local and federal attorneys, an ATF agent and police officers.
Stridiron said that, according to the V.I. Code, gun crimes must first be brought to the attention of his office, and then a decision can be made there as to whether to send them to the PSN task force. The procedure laid out in the draft memorandum, he said, would "subordinate" the local Justice Department.
Another problem, he said, was that the memorandum had a provision that could provide a lesser sentence to criminals agreeing to provide information about "those higher in the food chain" regarding weapons. "In my reading, it almost suggested that some people would get a free pass with regard to crimes in the territory," he said. "We're not going to be making deals."
Stridiron said the revised MOU would soon be sent to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Police Department and the ATF for signatures. He said that lack of adoption of the document is not holding up implementation of the plan.
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