June 18, 2004 – A proposal to rename the Narcotics Strike Force the V.I. Drug Enforcement Bureau in an effort to change its public image prompted heated comments Friday at a hearing of the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee.
The hearing was the sixth held to take testimony on the committee's Omnibus Crime Bill sponsored by the committee chair, Sen. Lorraine Berry. The NSF measure was one of the pieces of legislation that was suggested from outside the committee for inclusion in the bill.
Eddy Charles, drug policy adviser to the governor, explained in his testimony before the committee on Friday why he introduced the proposal.
"The infamous NSF has been the 'beam in the eye' of the Virgin Islands' drug-fighting capability for far too long," Charles said. He expressed the view that changing the name of the agency would help to change its negative image.
Fitzroy Williams, NSF director, agreed that his agency has an image problem. He said the recent trial and acquittal of two strike force agents on St. Croix and the previous plea-bargaining and subsequent sentencing of two narcotics agents, also on St. Croix, had brought shame and disgrace on the agency.
"Collectively, we have been working very hard to bring back integrity, honor and public confidence," Williams said. He added that there has been a "constant attempt" to dissolve the NSF.
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis told the committee that he does not allow his officers to work on investigations with the NSF because of its negative public image and what he termed a lack of integrity. The Police Department is dealing with its own problems of public perception, he noted.
Currently, no federal law-enforcement agency, including the U.S. Attorney's Office, will work on cases brought by the NSF, Lewis said.
"Unless you purge the unit [of] the individuals who brought forth shame on the agency, its image won't be helped," he said.
In response, Williams said Lewis' statements were just one example of the "total abuse and neglect" of the Narcotics Strike Force. "What I'm hearing here is extremely disturbing — that we won't get any assistance from the Police Department," he said.
Sen. Ronald Russell said changing the name of the agency would not solve its problems. "It appears to me that we should either make major revisions or disband the NSF," he said.
Other Proposed Additions Considered
The committee also discussed three measures introduced by Attorney General Iver Stridiron to be considered for inclusion in the Omnibus bill.
The first measure would further define the qualifications for issuance of a license for a firearm or ammunition. It would prohibit anyone who has been committed to a mental institution from ever obtaining a gun license. Also ineligible would be individuals who have renounced their U.S. citizenship, anyone who has been convicted of a felony, fugitives, drug abusers, illegal aliens and persons under court orders relating to stalking and domestic violence.
The second would change the mandatory minimum sentences for illegal possession of a firearm and illegal possession of ammunition to one year in prison for each crime. At present, the mandatory minimums are six months for possesion of an unlicensed firearm and seven years for illegal possession of ammunition. Stridiron said the current disparity seems unfair in that someone convicted of illegally possessing ammunition alone could face much more time in prison than someone found guilty of illegal gun possession.
The third would increase the penalty for simple assault and battery to six months in prison and a $250 fine from the current 30 days imprisonment and $50 fine.
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