Police confront frustrations expressed at town meeting

Pictured above: Police Commissioner Delroy Richards shares the challenges of policing St. John with a group of residents on March 29. Island Administer Camille Paris Jr. Organized the talk as a town meeting. Photo by Judi Shimel.

CRUZ BAY — Quality of life matters dominated talks held at a recent town meeting with members of the public and police in Cruz Bay. Police Commissioner Delroy Richards led the discussion at a meeting organized by the St. John Administrator.

Deputy Police Chief Arlene Charlewell and Police Commander David Cannonier joined Richards and St. John Administrator Camille Paris Jr. in the Cleone Creque Legislative Hall last Wednesday night.

About 20 residents, business owners and community volunteers sat in the gallery, many waiting for a chance to question officials.

The commissioner began by sketching out VIPD’s plans to expand police presence across the island. There was also frank talk about the department’s challenges. “The department is currently in a state of drought of resources in terms of manpower. We’ve got to do what we can to hire police officers. I know VIPD can do better,” Richards said.

The audience did not need much convincing on that point, but for different reasons.

One of the biggest frustrations, expressed throughout the Wednesday meeting, was the way police from Zone D Command in Cruz Bay respond when approached by residents.

Among the missing at the meeting, Police Chief Jason Marsh. Because of a number of prominent criminal cases that have come up lately, Richards said his district chief could not make it over. About a week had passed since three teenagers tried to hold up a fast food restaurant at Lockhart Gardens Shopping Center on St. Thomas. Officers responding to the scene shot and killed one of the would be robbers who opened fire on them.

But in spite of lower levels of manpower, the commissioner floated an idea of how VIPD could attract more of what it needs to address St. John’s problems.

Cruz Bay home owner Theodora Moorhead wanted to know why officers tell people who approach them with complaints to call 911.

Richards tried to explain that officers themselves have to call the police emergency line to report problems on the street.

Taxi driver Thomas Jackson accused police of being indifferent to worrisome problems. He said so after complaining that he and his sons were being confronted by someone who had served time for murder and were being threatened. But, the taxi driver said, police do not come to intervene when told that a confrontation is taking place in Cruz Bay.

“He’s always a menace to the community. He’s always drunk, threatening people. Tomorrow he’s going to be down there saying something and as commissioner, you should not feel good standing up there, saying you don’t have enough persons and no resources. That means you don’t care,” Jackson said.

Another woman in the audience said she was threatened by a vendor in Franklin Powell Park when she asked if the vendor had permission to sell in the park. “He threatened to cut off my head with a machete,” she said.

The commissioner bristled as residents made their complaints, saying his officers were putting their lives at risk in serving the public and he disagreed about talk of displaying indifference. Cannonier said he had told officers if citizens approach, asking for assistance, they should intervene.

The verbal exchanged cooled when a uniformed ranger from the Virgin Islands National Park stood up. The ranger asked for clarification. Was it true that non police enforcement officers like himself were operating under instructions to assist any civilian who approached them, asking for help?

Yes, the commissioner said, it was true. Conceding the point, he told the group he would have a written directive sent out telling officers to intervene when asked to assist and follow up with calls to 911.

Complaints were also heard about vagrancy, loitering and hand to hand drug deals. Among those complaining, the police commissioner.

Recent changes in local law are making it harder for police to handle the drug problem, Richards said. Small amounts of marijuana are allowed for personal use.

If a complaint comes in about loiterers smoking marijuana on the street, a responding officer can now have his actions thrown out of court if it turns out the amount being smoked falls within permissible limits.

Sports, Parks and Recreation coordinator Shakima Jones said she was concerned for the safety of children.

A small group of vagrants have been living in the bleachers at the tennis court, Jones said, and when the children come they sometimes display drug use. Once they performed a sex act in view of the children, she complained.

“Who is responsible for protecting the children? Is it Sports, Parks and Recreation or is it Ms. Harley, who is retired?”

Retired high school teacher Lisa Etre thanked Richards for assigning officers to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church on days when they run a soup kitchen for the homeless.

Most of the clientele is peaceful, she said, and most days run smoothly. But some among the homeless mentally ill have disrupted the program and threatened church volunteers.

“Most of the time it goes well, but sometimes it gets rowdy,” Etre said.

Perhaps similar help could be provided to tennis coach Pat Harley on Fridays when she holds a children’s clinic.

Richards pressed on, trying to persuade residents that policing would improve on island.

One idea calls for partnering with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to address the influx of illegal immigrants transiting on island, often at night.

There was also discussion about creating a satellite police academy in Coral Bay. If this were to happen, he said, it could create a police presence on St. John’s east side. It could attract more St. John residents to join the force by making it easier to qualify and train as police officers.

The commissioner also welcomed a concern expressed by former school principal Yvonne Wells about the number of school crossing guards on duty during school hours. If St. John needs another crossing guard, he said, he would be glad to make that happen.

New technology was expected to appear, putting law enforcement eyes on the street. New surveillance cameras with multiple lenses would give police the ability to view different angles from a single location.

By meeting’s end, many left discouraged and unconvinced but Richards said he turned down an invitation to a governor’s reception at Fort Christian because he wanted to talk with and listen to the people of St. John.