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COMMITTEE FORWARDS BILLS TO ESTABLISH AUXILIARY UNIT UNDER VITEMA, REQUIRE BACKGROUND CHECKS FOR IT PERSONNEL, ESTABLISH REAL CRIME CENTER, RECEIVES UPDATE ON ST. JOHN PUBLIC SAFETY

Published: Nov 9, 2023

ST. JOHN – The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, under the leadership of Kenneth L. Gittens, convened in a meeting at the Cleone H. Creque Legislative Conference Room. Lawmakers received testimony concerning a legislative measure to establish an auxiliary communications unit under the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA), a measure establishing a “Real Time Crime Center,” and the committee also received an update regarding public safety on the island of St. John.

In Block 1, the Committee considered Bill 35-0175, an act amending Title 23, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 11, relating to emergency communications during an emergency and major disasters by adding a subchapter II establishing an Auxiliary Communications Unit within the VITEMA and providing an auxiliary communications resource to any department agency and autonomous or semi-autonomous instrumentality of the Government of the Virgin Islands. The measure was proposed by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens.

Fred Kleber, the Manager of the American Radio Relay League delivered testimony. Kleber spoke on behalf of non-sponsored individuals who use their personal equipment and skills for the benefit of the territory. This personal equipment, also known as ham radio, has a history of providing public service to the US Virgin Islands Government and public sectors for many decades. This service has been licensed and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. After the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, territorial ham radio operators staffed communication centers in the territory. Communications were severely impacted in the territory, particularly on the island of St. John. During that time, ham radios were the only communication available on St. John.

Celia Kalousek, Board Member for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) delivered testimony. VOAD began meetings with St. Thomas and St. John in 2012, but it was quickly realized that each island needed unique disaster plans. This led to the formation of COADs, (Community Organizations Active in Disaster), which can help each island coordinate community resources and to fill the gaps in service during times of disaster. There are 285 licensed ham radio operators in the US Virgin Islands, which are situated in every area of the territory. A benefit of collaborating with these operators is that most of them have their equipment at home, which is connected by a territory wide repeater system. There is no cost for the Virgin Islands to supply the operators with equipment. Kalousek urged the Body to support the proposed measure.

Stephen DeBlasio, Assistant Director of VITEMA delivered testimony in support of the measure. According to DeBlasio’s testimony, in the event of a critical emergency, the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Operation Plan would dictate how and what under conditions and circumstances VITEMA would establish direction and control of the territorial response. DeBlasio stated that when there are disasters, the geographic isolation and topography of the territory have often had major effects on the availability of communications, such as telephones, mobile phones, and the availably of internet accessibility. DeBlasio stated that VITEMA was in support of the bill and stated that the unit would be an additional tool in the VITEMA arsenal to coordinate recovery and relief efforts in the territory. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably.

Lawmakers also considered Bill 35-0086, an act amending Title 3, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 1, Section 10h to require background checks for all IT personnel and employees of the Bureau of Information Technology, agencies that have data centers, and any employee who handles confidential information. The measure was proposed by Senator Dwayne M. Degraff.

Johnathan Tucker, the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Information Technology delivered testimony. In Tucker’s testimony, he stated that while the Department acknowledged the merit of the bill, he said that the responsibility of background checks should be the responsibility of the Division of Personnel, voicing that they were better prepared to manage the matters. Tucker stated that this approach better aligns with established practices in numerous organizations, which would ensure a streamlined implementation of background checks. Tucker’s testimony voiced concern over the proposed use of the National Crime Investigation Center as a data source, as its primary focus is on criminal investigations. The Bureau of Information Technology lacks the necessary resources, accessibility, and expertise to manage the intricacies of the database. Tucker recommended exploring alternatives or considering collaborations with law enforcement agencies to ensure the accuracies and reliability of background checks. Tucker stated that the Bureau was ready to comply with the stipulations if it were to be enacted, However, he was concerned about the administrative and financial implications of implementing the background checks. The proposed bill would place the responsibility of costs on the applicant. He said it was important that this be carefully administered so that it does not hinder those seeking employment. For those already employed, he recommended that the funding for background checks be taken up by the respective agencies.

Cindy Richardson, Director, Division of Personnel in her prepared testimony also told committee members that the DOP understood the importance of conducting background checks and to equip all human resources staff with the tools and information necessary for agencies to conduct various levels of background checks as part of the interview and selection process. Richardson said the respective agency is responsible for conducting the necessary background checks as part of the hiring process. Federal Law also prohibits the Department from doing non-sensitive clearance that can stop someone from being interviewed for a position. “Ban the Box” laws also prohibit the Department from asking an employee applying for a government job about criminal history on the job application. Richardson also stated that background checks can be extremely expensive and hoped that funds would be allotted to support the measure. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably.

Additionally, lawmakers considered Bill 35-0131, an act amending Title 3 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 15 to establish a “Real Time Crime Center, Centralized Crime Data System within the Virgin Islands Police Department”. The measure was proposed by Senator Diane T. Capehart. The proposed measure would allow the Commissioner of Police to establish within the Virgin Islands Police Department, a Real Time Crime Center, with offices on St. Thomas and St. Croix. This center could capitalize on a wide and expanding range of technologies for efficient and effective policing. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably. All approved items will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.
In Block 2, lawmakers received an update as it pertained to Public Safety on the Island of St. John. Senator Gittens voiced disappointment that the Virgin Islands Police Department was unable to participate, stating that it was possible they could have sent other representatives.

Sharon Coldren, Volunteer President of the Coral Bay Community Council delivered testimony. Coldren voiced the need for effective communication tools in St. John, stating there is no functional cell service in Coral Bay. Coldren also voiced concern over general driving safety, stating that residents on the island have avoided being hit by tourists. Additionally, animals like cows, donkeys, sheep, and goats have also presented safety issues. Additionally, police response and follow up has been an issue of contention, stating that people get frustrated when they do not see “next steps” happening after police are called. Coldren states that it is exceedingly difficult for individuals to report assaults because victims often do not feel that there is effort with their cases, and that the process to report them is ineffective and demeaning. Voicing concerns over crime on island, Coldren stated that it is often assumed that crime comes from St. Thomas, but truly, they do not know who is responsible. She said that at times, stolen items were found for sale on Facebook but are not recovered. Additionally, she has been told of instances of open sales of drugs on island.

Carmen Wesselhoff-Hedrington, former At Large Senator, stated that the crime situation on St. John was unsettling. Wesselhoff-Hedrington said there was a police shortage on the island and that there was only one detective on St. John. If there is a crime, forensics must be sent from St. Thomas. She stated that there must be a plan to help St. John, or else the island’s tourism product would suffer. She implored the body to help get the crime situation under control. Wesselhoff-Hedrington, who works as a taxi driver, stated that she was recently uncomfortable transporting a passenger to Cinnamon Bay because she felt uneasy.

A motion to subpoena Police Commissioner Ray Martinez and his staff to attend the next hearing on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety was entertained after hearing from the residents on their ongoing challenges on St. John. The motion was voted upon favorably. Chairperson Gittens voiced displeasure at the crime situation in St. John. “It seems to me like things are going backwards instead of forward. As a career law enforcement officer, I am embarrassed with what is going on. The criminals do not run our streets.”

Senators present at today’s Committee hearing included Kenneth L. Gittens, Ray Fonseca, Angel L. Bolques Jr, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. Degraff, Alma Francis Heyliger, and Franklin D. Johnson.

The Division of Public Affairs is committed to providing the community with accurate information on legislative proceedings and other events at the Legislature of the Virgin Islands.
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