Published: Apr 20, 2023

ST. CROIX – The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, led by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens convened in a meeting at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room.

The committee received overview testimony from the Office of Highway Safety, in regards to updates on the Office’s operations, capital projects, and initiatives. Additionally, an update from the Virgin Islands Police Department was received regarding, but not limited to, updates on the Department’s operations, capital projects, initiatives, disaster recovery, deployment strategies, and training and recruitment efforts.

Daphne O’Neal, the Director of the Virgin Islands Office of Highway Safety. The Office of Highway Safety (OHS) is a unit within the Virgin Islands Police Department, and manages federal funds appropriated through two US Department of Transportation subdivisions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). NHTSA, through sections 402 and 405 funds the program areas of Planning and Administration, impaired driving, occupant protection, Traffic Records, and Police Traffic Services. FMCSA funds the commercial vehicle safety program area.

When the unit is fully staffed, it is comprised of the Director, a Compliance Officer, a Fiscal Officer, six Program Coordinators, an IT Analyst, a Traffic Records Technician, and an Administrative Assistant. The office currently has six vacant positions. For Fiscal Year 2023, the OHS has awarded seventeen projects totaling $3,131,743.00 to subrecipients to included public and private entities. The major focus of the unit is primarily education and outreach. It has provided trainings and certifications for child passengers safety technicians, drug interdiction assistance certifications, commercial vehicle inspectors, VIPD staffers on data driven approaches to crime & traffic safety, and officers on the use and deployment of the intoximeter instrument. The OHS highlights that traffic safety is its main priority.

Sidney Elskoe, the Acting Assistant Commissioner of Police for the United States Virgin Islands Police Department delivered testimony. In testimony delivered by Elskoe, he mentioned that the VIPD made progressive advancements in how they serve the public. The department continues to address the number one problem in the community, gun related violence. The operations division, which are managed by the Chiefs of Police in the St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix districts have made significant advances in solving and preventing crimes by nurturing a closer relationship with the Virgin Islands Community. Chiefs have employed a “focused deterrence” approach, which hopes to solve crimes and prevent criminal activity before it happens. Chiefs now have access to technology that acts as nameless electronic witnesses that are fearless and cannot be threatened. This includes technologies such as ShotSpotter.

Additionally, the VIPD is working with the Bureau of Information Technology and Property and Procurement for an in car mobile routing and network connection project to improve communication capabilities. This will enable officers network access to key resources such as incident and accent report systems while out in the field. This will simplify work, allowing officers to write reports in their vehicles. The Department has also deployed body cameras to support daily operations. These cameras enable the department with an efficient process to share the video footage within a secure environment to the prosecutor’s office, and to other entities, and ensures accountability. Every uniformed officer of the VIPD is equipped with a body camera.

Additional funding has been requested through the Bureau of Justice Assistance to expand the Body Worn Camera program to outfit all sworn personnel with a camera. Body worn cameras will also be loaned to officers from outside agencies that partner with the VIPD. The ShotSpotter program coverage has been expanded. The department is collaborating with the vendor on evaluating the integration of cameras within that system. This is intended to provide visual coverage for the alerts, improving the gunfire detection and response system.

The VIPD is also undergoing the initial plans to establish a Real Time Crime Center in the US Virgin Islands. This will allow innovative technological approaches to crime fighting capabilities and will assist the VIPD and other law enforcement agencies with another crime fighting tool. Law enforcement training is also key to the department. There is currently a class of fourteen recruits on each island. There are nine candidates for the position of police officer on St. Thomas and four on the island of St. Croix. There are seven candidates for the position of Police Auxiliary in each district. The remainder are being trained for various peace officer positions in various government agencies. Elskoe stated that recruiting has been a challenge, and that an aggressive recruiting effort has begun. The department has also held active shooter trainings in both districts.

Capital projects have been undertaken by the department. The Patrick Sweeney Police Headquarters Project is currently underway. A concept design has begun, and a conceptual design package is underway. The project status of the Alexander Farrelly Justice Center is pending FEMA Program Delivery Management Group review. Temporary repairs were made to use the building. When permanent repairs are scheduled, temporary space would be needed to relocate the operations of the Virgin Islands Police Department and the Bureau of Corrections. The project is estimated to be completed in 2026. The Leander Jurgen Command Police Station in St. John awaits completion of as-built drawings. It the goal to relocate the operations of the Jurgen command to a temporary building while repairs are being conducted. A capital improvement project totaling $1,500,000 to purchase over two hundred cameras, which would be placed in key locations in the territory.

Senator Franklin Johnson voiced concern over what he stated was a lack of police presence in the St. Croix towns. Uston Cornelius, Deputy Chief of Police in the St. Croix District responded that it was due to a lack of labor. Deputy Chief of Police for the St. Thomas St. John District Steven Phillip mentioned that officers were focused in specific areas and that the department was intel driven, stating that the focus would be on an area in need at the time. Senator Kenneth L. Gittens voiced concern over cars that are unregistered. Gittens stated that there are over 10,000 unregistered vehicles territory wide, stating that it accounts for $1 million in lost revenue to the VI Government, and voiced that enforcement is key.

Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Kenneth L. Gittens, Ray Fonseca, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, and Carla J. Joseph.

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