Following a string of high-profile crimes in recent days, law enforcers are increasing police patrols across the territory, reviewing school security, and strengthening the border, among other measures, leaders said last Thursday during a National Security Council press conference.
After a prison van shooting, a gun scare at Elmore Stoutt High School, and 11 attempted burglaries — all within the span of a week — the governor, premier and police commissioner explained how they plan to address these crimes as well as ongoing drug and gun smuggling in the territory.
“I want to thank the governor and the police commissioner for responding positively to my request to have this press conference in response to the concerns of the public, who wants to hear from their leaders as it pertains to crime,” Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said during the press conference. “It’s not just the job of the police; it’s not just the job of the government: We all have a responsibility of ensuring that the BVI remains a safe place to live, to work and to visit.”
A much-discussed topic at the press conference was the Oct. 9 gun scare at ESHS.
Early that afternoon, a video circulated on social media showing students fleeing the schoolyard as a voice in the background said, “The man has a gun.” The school didn’t issue an official statement until about an hour after the incident, and in the meantime, parents reacted by rushing to the school to pick up their children.
When ESHS officials did issue their initial statement via Facebook and in emails to parents, they said that the matter was under control and denied reports that a masked gunman was on campus.
Though the initial messages from school officials reached some parents, it took more than three hours for the Ministry of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports to issue a statement to the general public.
“Regrettably, there has been some misinformation circulating regarding this incident, which has led to unnecessary disruption both on and off the campus,” the statement claimed. “We urge all members of our community to rely on official updates and information from the school administration to ensure the accuracy of the details they receive.”
The statement also explained that police had received a report from ESHS asking for immediate assistance because a student had left the premises following an altercation over a stolen bike.
The student returned with three additional individuals, one of whom wore a mask, but police were already on the scene and quickly detained the group, the statements said.
Though education officials denied that any weapons were found in the detainees’ possession, the NSC reported later in the day that an imitation firearm had been recovered “away from the school’s premises.”
The incident left many parents and other community members questioning whether schools are prepared to respond to gun incidents.
In last Thursday’s press conference, Mr. Collins defended the police response to the school scare.
“[Police] responded to a masked gunman on the school premises: That was the call that came in,” Mr. Collins said. “So [officers] can respond to that and they do respond to that. And they are adequately trained to deal with any scenario that they’re faced with.”
Later, he added that the response was also very quick.
“Within a few minutes of that incident being reported — it came in at [11:50 a.m.] on Monday morning — I had a firearms commander, chief inspector firearms commander, at the school dictating resources and dealing with the incident.”
When the premier was asked whether schools in the territory host active shooter drills, he said such measures are under consideration.
“As we know, all over the world now we see some of this phenomena as it pertains to school shootings and things like that,” Dr. Wheatley said. “While we’ve never seen an incident like that here, I do think it behoves us to take notice of the trends taking place in the world and to adequately prepare ourselves. When the education minister returns [from travel overseas], that’s perhaps something that I can speak to her about.”
Mr. Collins also explained the police force’s role in bolstering security at ESHS following the incident.
“I want to reassure the community that we didn’t just do a security walkthrough on Tuesday morning as the National Security Council asked us to do. We’ve been with the school all week,” the commissioner said. “In fact, today, one of my superintendents, Selwyn Rock, is with the school … leaders and with the Parent Teacher Association as well, discussing the issues that are affecting the school.”
In addition to the initial walkthrough, Mr. Collins felt that returning to ESHS for an additional review was necessary.
“It’s vitally important that we carry out the second review that the National Security Council has asked us to do with the security firm at the school and also with the education authorities as well,” Mr. Collins said.
The commissioner and governor also addressed a recent string of 11 burglaries in three days.
“The burglaries are a huge, important topic for us this week, and I want to reassure the community that the additional patrols that we’ve spoken about are out there targeting those areas where we’ve seen burglaries occur,” Mr. Collins said. “Next Monday, I will be posting officers back to the East End and the West End on a 24-hour shift system to allow the visibility to be seen in those police stations.”
Mr. Rankin gave an update about plans to increase the police presence on sister islands as well.
“In addition to the actions of the police here in Tortola, we also now have a permanent police marine unit in Virgin Gorda, and the police commissioner has deployed additional officers to Anegada in response to recent events,” the governor said.
Prison van shooting
Leaders also provided a brief update on the Oct. 9 shooting of a prison officer who was in a prison van that was taking an inmate to court.
The officer was subsequently transported to Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital to receive treatment for non-life-threatening injuries.
“This was a most serious incident. Immediate steps have been taken to ensure the security of the prison and to ensure the safety of both prison officers and prisoners,” Mr. Rankin said. “Steps have also been taken to enhance security at the High Court and at the Magistrates’ Court in conjunction with the [police force].”
No arrests have been announced in connection with the shooting, but the governor said the investigation remains active.
Also during the press conference, Mr. Collins touted the police force’s investigative toolbox, which he said includes forensic science and DNA testing.
“We’ve got the very best available laboratories and centres that we send our exhibits off to for analysis,” the commissioner said.
His agency’s human resources pool, he said, has also been expanded.
“I’m pleased to say that after the recent recruitment that we’ve had and transferees coming into the territory, we’ve doubled the numbers on our marine unit; we’ve doubled the numbers on our roads policing unit. … We’ve now got a firearms function available on Virgin Gorda as well to deal with any incidents that occur there. So it’s about not just the physical tools in the box, but actually the human resources we’ve got as well, and really maximising the use of those resources and flexing them to the needs of the communities.”
The three NSC members also pushed for a community-wide approach to tackling crime.
“The illicit drug trade goes hand-in-hand with gun-related crime. As well as record seizures of guns, the police have made record seizures of drugs in the past two years, but the whole community must play its part in helping to stop that trade,” Mr. Rankin said. “It’s deeply damaging to the security of the territory, and of the lives of young people who get caught up in the transhipment of illicit narcotics.”
The premier offered a similar message.
“I make it a direct appeal to families: Families have to ensure that we do our part, to raise persons who are positive, constructive members of society,” Dr. Wheatley said. “When we see our children engaged in activities that we know are wrong, we have to step up to the plate. And we have to ensure that those activities do not take place.”
The premier ended his statement with a plea for community members to speak up if they witness wrongdoing.
“If you see something, say something,” he said. “The silence only favours those who seek to harm our community. We all must be willing to speak up in defence of the Virgin Islands that we so love.”
The police commissioner called for a “societal approach” to fighting crime.
“Whilst it’s great to celebrate successes in numbers of guns being recovered and tonnes of cocaine being seized, unless we have a whole societal approach to preventing crime, then it doesn’t mean anything at all,” he said. “Because we can keep arresting and we can keep seizing, but all the time that tide of illegal firearms and drugs is coming into the communities of the BVI, we are fighting an uphill and losing battle.”