March 6, 2006 – A bill establishing a chief of police for each district in the territory will help the Police Department fight crime more effectively and cut down on unnecessary bureaucracy, senators said at a Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee meeting Monday on St. Thomas.
The bill, which has already been approved by the full body, vetoed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and killed in the override process, was re-introduced at the meeting by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who said that two district police chiefs would boost morale within the department and reduce police response time to incidents.
"This is how our Police Department used to be," White said. "So we've seen how it is with two police chiefs, and we've seen how it is with one territorial chief – and I think re-instituting the old system would be more beneficial to the department."
White told senators funding the new positions should not be a concern. "With the crime rate increasing, we really can't afford to put a price on public safety," he said.
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis said his objection to the bill had nothing to do with funding, but rather hinged upon breaking the department's established chain of command.
"The bill, while it seeks to create a position of authority at the top of the Police Department's rank structure in both districts, will actually have an adverse effect on our operations," he said.
"With our present structure, there is a clear chain of command from the lowest member of the rank structure up to the very top – each person in the organization knows that he or she is responsible to one primary person," Lewis said. "This unity of command is necessary for a police organization to run effectively."
Lewis explained that the current structure is comprised of a territorial chief of police, and a deputy chief on each island, with promotions within the department being recommended by the Police Commissioner and sanctioned by the governor.
"Through this system, I have already cut the number of employees by putting in a territorial chief of police while the language included in the bill includes three separate heads of the police department, and a chief in each district," Lewis said. "These individuals would also be working at the pleasure of the governor who appointed them, and would thus not answer to the commissioner. This is not consistent with unity of command, nor is it consistent with good managerial practice."
Lewis instead suggested that the department retain the territorial chief position, but change the three deputy chiefs to district chiefs. "Then these individuals would be responsible for their own island, but still report to one leader," he said.
Lewis further suggested that the police commissioner be allowed to hire his own staff, instead of having to make recommendations to the governor.
Senators, however, felt differently, and told Lewis that the department should have a set promotional system.
"While officers do have to take the promotional exam and make their way through the ranks to lieutenant, captain or chief, there's no guaranteed line of succession in terms of promotions," Sen. Louis P. Hill said. "There's no guarantee, for example, that a captain will replace a captain, or a sergeant will replace a sergeant – anybody can replace anybody, and I find that disturbing."
Hill said he was also "disheartened" by the increasing level of gun violence in the territory, and asked Lewis what the department was doing to curb illegal gun smuggling.
Lewis said that many guns coming into the territory are arriving from Miami, Atlanta and Ohio, and that the department is working with Customs and Border Protection, along with other federal agencies, to "get the firearms off the streets."
Despite Lewis' opposition to establishing two district police chiefs, all senators at the meeting said they supported the idea – until White introduced an amendment mandating that the positions be filled 60 days after the bill is implemented instead of the original Jan. 10, 2007 implementation date.
The amendment was adopted, with Sens. Liston Davis, Hill and White voting in favor of it, and Sens. Craig W. Barshinger and Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion voting against.
Davis, Hill and White also voted in favor of the amended bill, while Barshinger and Encarnacion voted against it.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was not present when the vote was taken.
For the second time around, senators also voted to hold a bill establishing a voluntary reading program for inmates in the territory for further consideration. The bill was held in committee at a Feb. 7 hearing, after representatives from the Justice Department told senators that some provisions listed in the bill are already components of the department's Inmate Re-Entry Program.
Senators received similar testimony from Justice representatives Monday, and Education Commissioner Noreen Michael asked to revamp the bill. She said the bill's description of the reading program and the roles of the agencies involved in its implementation were "too vague."
"The bill says that the Bureau of Corrections, in coordination with the Education Department, shall conduct initial testing to determine an inmate's reading level before they can be eligible for participation in the program," she said. "However, the bill does not say exactly which agency would bear the responsibility of the testing or who would pay for the associated costs – that's information that we would need to know before we can proceed with this."
Sen. Davis, the bill's sponsor, said he had planned to offer amendments to the bill, which includes a $400,000 appropriation from the General Fund for the implementation of the program. However, Theshia Nieves, education coordinator for Justice, told Davis that "significantly more funding" would be needed if the program were to be implemented.
"We are currently severely hampered by the lack of staff, funds and space required to successfully implement the plans that the Legislature has proposed, and in order to sustain a viable education program, a comprehensive and exhaustive budget is vital," Nieves said.
Attorney General Kerry Drue proposed that the Inmate Re-Entry Program be extended to offer some of the services included in the bill. "This proposed program will be expensive to implement because it requires wide testing, the hiring of additional teachers and employment counselors, and it makes more programmatic demands on the stretched number of corrections officers on duty at any given time," she said.
"In my opinion," Drue said, "whatever monies are available would be better spent on meeting the staffing needs of the bureau and on funding the personnel necessary to support the current inmate training and educational programs."
Davis said he would take another look at the bill before re-introducing it at the next committee meeting.
Present at Monday's meeting were Sens. Barshinger, Davis, Encarnacion, Hill, Malone, and White.
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry was absent.
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