The V.I. Police Department’s manpower shortage, lack of resources and resulting low employee morale were discussed at a Monday morning, March 5, hearing of the V.I. Senate’s Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice at the St. John Legislature.
The VIPD is short 111 officers, according to testimony by VIPD Assistant Commissioner Novelle Francis.
“Currently, the Virgin Islands Police Department is experiencing a district-wide manpower shortage amounting to approximately 200 to 250 officers,” said Francis. “The actual manpower currently available to the St. Thomas/St. John/Water Island District is 242 officers and 207 officers on St. Croix. This equates to a shortage of 111 officers based on authorized strength, as determined by the Office of Management and Budget.”
Low Employee Morale
“There is a critical need to attract new officers; additionally, there is a shortage of supervisory personnel in the Police Department, however, the recent promotion of 15 officers in the St. Thomas/St. John/Water Island District to the rank of
Sergeant, partially addressed this problem,” Francis added.
When questioned on employee morale at the St. John Police Department by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, St. Thomas/St. John/Water Island District Chief Milton Petersen admitted the manpower shortage plays a part in how the officers feel about their jobs.
“Morale is low to some extent, based on the manpower situation,” said Petersen.
The fact that veteran police officers receive little to no pay raises also contributes to low employee morale, explained Francis.
“The starting salary for an officer is $29,700 — the same a person who has been on the job for six years makes,” he said. “This is one reason officers have left to seek jobs elsewhere.”
“More Boots on Ground”
Ensuring the territory is able to keep qualified police officers on the force is an important goal for Sen. Carlton Dowe, who recently proposed Bill No. 270011, which would, among other things, provide for the hiring of 250 police officers territory-wide, the senator explained.
“We are not going to be able to keep police officers,” said Dowe. “We must change the way we’re doing business. It is up to us to correct this.”
“This is dear to my heart and it’s the right thing to do,” Dowe continued. “We need to get more boots on the ground.”
Progress on Unsolved Crimes
The VIPD is making progress on closing some of unsolved St. John cases, Petersen testified.
“We are making progress,” he said. “I can see some arrests developing soon.”
Petersen said he considered Cruz Bay a higher crime area than Coral Bay, although he admitted he is “not entirely familiar with St. John.”
“Cruz Bay is an area of major concern, because of the influx of individuals who travel back and forth,” said Petersen. “We do have camera surveillance in Cruz Bay which is monitored by two personnel during peak times.”
St. John also has two crime investigators who reside on St. Thomas and work shifts from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 4 to 11 p.m., Petersen explained.
In the event a crime occurs at night that needs investigating — which has happened in the past — the VIPD often works with other agencies, including the Virgin Islands National Park, to transport an investigator from St. Thomas to St. John, according to Petersen.
Senator Liston Davis raised his concerns at the hearing regarding officers’ appearance.
“I am concerned when I look at some of your officers,” Davis told McCall. “They have a lack of physical training. You think they could catch me running?”
Physical Training Not Required for Officers
Physical training is not a requirement for VIPD officers, according to McCall.
“Customer service training is ongoing, but adequate supervision is a challenge,” said the VIPD commissioner.
“I want to see your officers look fit,” said Davis. “Discipline is what’s needed.”
Senator at Large Carmen Wesselhoft, chairwoman of the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice, raised her concerns regarding the lack of foot patrols in Cruz Bay.
“It hurts my heart that they have to drive to the dock, when the police station is in close proximity,” said Wesselhoft.
Officers should be on foot during certain times of the day, according to McCall.
In good news for St. John, despite Leander Jurgen Command’s electrical and plumbing problems and lack of a working toilet in the station’s holding cell, the Cruz Bay police station is one of the territory’s best, explained McCall.
“Leander Jurgen Command is probably in the best condition of any station we have,” he said. “Despite the problems, it’s still one of our better facilities.”
St. John Rescue Needs Permanent Home
St. John Rescue Vice President Alfredo Alejo testified regarding the volunteer organization’s need for a permanent home.
“Our organization is 100 percent volunteers,” said Alejo. “We have no offices. Our goal now is to have a home where we can conduct training and exercises.”
Dowe urged the volunteer organization to house its operations in a building with other island emergency services rather than seek out a piece of land and build its own property.
“What better way to stop carving out the territory than work together?” said Dowe. “I’ll help you get equipment, but this land business isn’t going to work for me. If we are going to build a new facility, it needs to house everyone.”
A master plan for St. John could help ensure emergency services are housed together, explained Alejo.
Master Plan Needed
“If the government had a master plan for St. John, we wouldn’t have to separate,” he said. “Nobody wants to see the big picture.”
Dowe reiterated his support for the volunteer organization.
“We will look at the budget when the time comes and assist you in any way, shape or form,” said Dowe. “You don’t have to sell me on the necessity.”
Wesselhoft, Dowe, Jn Baptiste, Davis, and Senator Celestino White were present at the hearing. Senators Ronald Russell and Alvin Williams were absent.
Representatives from the Virgin Islands Fire Service, the Virgin Islands Territorial Emer-gency Management Agency and the Department of Justice also testified.
Virgin Islands Port Authority Executive Director Darlan Brin and St. John EMT Cat Taylor were both invited to testify and did not show at the hearing.