March 17, 2006 – If he had three wishes Police Commissioner Elton Lewis would like to have more and better experienced police officers, a state-of-the-art crime lab, and a top notch training academy.
Lewis, who was the speaker at a luncheon meeting of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, held Friday at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel, said a crime lab would enable the department to obtain fast and accurate results when processing evidence. He said currently, the department has to send evidence off-island to various federal agencies for processing, which can take months or "even years," since cases are prioritized and evidence is processed in order of what labs elsewhere consider most important.
He said a training academy, where both local and federal personnel could obtain various law enforcement skills, would also help the department get accredited. "This has been a dream of mine since 1995, and we're getting close to achieving it – very, very close," he said. He said 63 acres of land on St. Croix has already been identified for the academy.
Lewis also mentioned the department's need for additional manpower, but said he had been talking about that issue for so long he wasn't going to belabor it anymore. Lewis focused instead on the need for a border patrol unit for the territory. He said the Virgin Islands have "233 miles of unprotected coastline," which is open to a host of illegal immigrants. "These individuals are coming from as far away as Brazil, and using the territory as their stopping point before they can continue on to the mainland," he said. "Just recently we pick up 73 Haitian immigrants, and we have to provide them with things like food, lodging, clothing, and medical care. That's putting a huge strain on the government, and we're continuing to push the Delegate to Congress [Donna Christensen] for it."
Rodney E. Miller Sr., chief executive officer of the Schneider Regional Medical Center, added to Lewis' comments by stating that when illegal immigrants who are not insured are treated at the hospital, the government has to subsidize the costs. "It's a great financial burden," he said.
In response to questioning from Joe Aubain, chamber executive director, about the abundance of hawkers, drug dealers and indigent people wandering around downtown Charlotte Amalie, both Lewis and Miller agreed there is a pressing need for facilities to take care of the territory's homeless and mentally ill.
Aubain said the chamber gets lots of complaints from residents and visitors who say they are "frightened" to shop in downtown Charlotte Amalie because "hawkers" who also sell drugs are verbally assaulting them. "So far, we've pinpointed 63 individuals who are out there causing problems," Aubain said. "We know drugs are being sold, we know who's selling them, and we think the situation's out of control."
As for more serious crimes, Lewis was clear that they could not be solved without community involvement – particularly homicide cases, which he said could not move forward in the criminal justice system without witnesses.
Referring to a recent killing at the Country Club on St. Croix, Lewis said, "Thousands of people were present, but no one saw it, yet they expect the police to solve it."
He said, "I know we did have 43 homicides in the territory last year, and that most of them are unsolved," he said. "I also know that until we bring closure to these cases, there are families out there who will continue to suffer, and my heart goes out to them. But, the bottom line is that we have to have more people come forward with what they know. If we don't have certain elements in place when we're looking at a crime, then we can't solve it."
He added that many residents don't trust the department, and may be afraid to come forward with evidence. After the meeting, he said the department is pushing for a witness protection program, but has not been given any funding to set one up. "We are working aggressively with the Justice Department to take care of that issue," he said. "It really is a critical need."
Lewis said that the problem of unsolved homicides is not "indigenous" to the Virgin Islands, but is a problem plaguing police departments in other parts of the Caribbean and the United States mainland. "Put unsolved homicides on the Internet," he said and "you will see."
On the up side he said the department has acquired new automatic fingerprinting equipment that will expedite the identification process once the data is input.
"I am also looking into creating a 'cold case squad' which would be responsible for taking a look at some the unsolved crimes and seeing what can be done about them," he said.
The department is also looking at reinstituting sector policing, meaning officers will each be assigned an area to patrol, and would therefore be responsible for what happens in that sector. "This is not a new idea," he said. "But somehow we as a department got away from it – we drive our cars instead of walking the beat, and don't talk to each other like we used to in the past. Sector, or community policing, would allow residents and businesses to know their officers by name, and call on them directly whenever there is an issue."
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