Feb. 6, 2006 – Federal and domestic budget cuts, along with national Supreme Court rulings, are hampering Homeland Security and law enforcement operations in the territory, local security officials said at a Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security, and Justice meeting Monday on St. Croix.
Novelle Francis, territorial chief of police, also said that the local government has to take a holistic approach to fixing various internal problems before the threats of drugs, firearms and influx of illegal immigrants into the territory can be curbed.
Melvin Vanterpool, director of the V.I.'s Homeland Security office, said his agency needs at least $600,000 annually for operations. "In our first year of operations we were supposed to receive an appropriation of $300,000. However, we were not allotted that entire amount – in fact, we were only able to draw down about $200,000, and currently, we have no money left from our General Fund appropriation to use to fill some of our necessary vacancies and establish an office on St. Croix."
Vanterpool said that currently the office needs a public relations officer to relay Homeland Security information to the V.I. community, a financial analyst for the management of federal grants, and an office coordinator for St. Croix.
"Our function is to protect the territory from the threat of foreign invasion," he said. "We need these positions to be filled in order for us to do that job. The federal money that we get is only supposed to be used for training and drill exercises, so we need the General Fund money for everything else."
Francis also said a lack of government funding has hindered the VIPD from hiring much needed officers, obtaining equipment and establishing a crime lab in the territory. Francis said the crime lab in particular is "critical," especially when evidence related to drug cases needs to be processed quickly.
"Also we need money to update our emergency response system," he added. "Our present 911 system is obsolete, and that's something that we need to have running properly at all times."
Francis said funding is also needed for local agencies such as Customs, who need more staff to check containers and packages coming into the territory's ports.
Responding to questioning from Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville, Francis said only about 5 to 7 percent of packages coming into ports are examined. "A lot of things come into the V.I. every day," Francis said. "And with a shortage of staff and proper equipment, there's no way Customs can check everything. And these are the kinds of things that we have to fix before we can really deal with problems like the smuggling in of guns and drugs."
Other testifiers said more funding is also needed to obtain a criminal pathologist for the Police Department and to establish a local witness protection program.
"The level of crime in the territory right now is unacceptable," Sen. Louis P. Hill said after the testimony. "And since the V.I. Government ended Fiscal Year 2005 with a $100 million surplus, I don't know why we can't provide more funding to stop what's going on."
Officer Arthur Hector, head of the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union on St. Croix, told Hill one of the major problems is that the VIPD's budget request is "always different" than the amount appropriated to the department by the Legislature.
"The figures that we give to you describing exactly how much it takes to run the department is never what we receive in the end," Hector said. "Our budget request is always changed at the legislative level, then changed again by the governor, and we always end up with less than what is necessary to run our operations.
"Crime-fighting is expensive and everyone needs to realize that," Hector continued. "If you want us to do our jobs properly, then we need the funding. If we submit a realistic budget to you, then give it to us. What's it going to take before people realize what's going on down here?"
Hill also asked Francis why many illegal gun reports filed by police officers have recently been thrown out of local district courts. Hill said he had heard that officers have been writing up individuals for carrying illegal guns and have filed reports, but have had many of those cases dismissed before going to trial.
Assistant Attorney General Charlotte Poole Davis said that the federal Supreme Court recently broadened the definition of a defendant's constitutional rights. Under this new definition, she said, officers now have to have "probable cause" for arresting an individual for the possession of an illegal firearm or the case would be thrown out of court.
Budget cuts on the federal level are also hurting the territory, Vanterpool said. He explained that more money is needed for the U.S. war efforts in the Middle East, which limits the amount of federal funding available for other departments and agencies. In relation to the territory, lack of federal funding has kept the local Homeland Security office from receiving helicopters to help with monitoring V.I. borders.
"We have 175 miles of unprotected shoreline," Adjutant General Eddy L. Charles said. "There's a gap of 40 miles between St. Thomas and St. Croix. We have certain assets such as HOVENSA – one of the largest refineries in the world – that need to be protected. So, we do need to have this kind of equipment to help our Coast Guard with border patrol, but unfortunately, most of those resources are being tied up in the war efforts."
However, Charles did say that local National Guardsmen are prepared to defend the territory against "the inevitable threat of terrorism." He explained that contingencies of troops are being trained to be part of "civil support teams" that can be deployed for defense in the region or all over the world. He also said National Guard units are fully equipped with communications devices, are trained to deal with hazardous materials and bombs, and can even be utilized to help with maintenance repairs in local schools.
Charles further said the National Guard and V.I. Homeland Security Office are up-to-date on local hurricane and tsunami preparedness strategies which can be put into effect in case of an emergency and have trained 1,500 private citizens in the territory to be first responders in their communities.
"So, given all that, I'd rate the territory's response level as 'fair,' with an urgent need for more local financial support," Vanterpool concluded.
Present at Monday's meeting were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Liston Davis, Pedro Encarnacion, Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Terrence Nelson, Ronald E. Russell, and Usie R. Richards.
Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Shawn-Michael Malone, and Celestino A. White Sr. were absent.
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