During a press conference on July 20, Police Commissioner Mark Collins, right, joins Governor John Rankin and Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley in calling on the community to help officers curb violent crime. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Following a daylight armed robbery on July 1 and a high-speed boat chase last week, National Security Council leaders acknowledged concern among community members about violent crime and asked for greater cooperation between the public and law enforcement to keep it from spreading.

Police Commissioner Mark Collins joined the premier and governor to decry violent crime during a press conference on July 20.

Governor John Rankin, who is responsible for national security, said the Virgin Islands remains a “low crime jurisdiction compared to the large majority of other places in the region and internationally.”

However, he added that the recent day-time robbery at Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park was “deeply disturbing,” and he noted there have been four murders in the territory this year — all of which he said have been linked to the drug trade or organised crime.

Mr. Rankin added that law enforcement has seized three tonnes of cocaine so far this year.

“To deal with such crimes, we need to support the work of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force,” he said.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley also decried the recent murders, sometimes in broad daylight, of young men in the community.

A broader approach

Besides responding promptly to violent crimes, the governor said the territory needs to work to address the underlying causes of crime and develop a comprehensive strategy for stopping violence, especially focusing on the illegal drug trade.

“The trade in drugs is deeply corrosive to our society,” Mr. Rankin said. “Some people, often young people, unfortunately are lured into making what they think will be easy money through that trade and its related criminal activity. They forfeit a respectable future and risk it all by getting tempted into corruption for personal gain. But when they get caught, they face lengthy prison sentences.”

He added, “To tackle this, we need more people to speak out against the scourge of illicit drugs, to not let their loved ones be drawn into it, and to tell the police when they know that wrongdoing is happening.”

Mr. Collins said his officers have been working to build trust between law enforcement and community members in recent years.

“I reintroduced community policing back in June of 2021, recognising the disconnect, possibly, between frontline policing and our communities,” he said. “Certainly, in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve seen the public more willing to come forward and speak to us and give us information.”

Despite this step forward, the commissioner said he recognises officers don’t yet have the “full trust and confidence of the community.”

Mr. Rankin also urged schools, youth organisations, churches and other stakeholder groups to help steer young people away from crime. The community also needs to bolster its efforts on addiction rehabilitation and prison recidivism, he added.

Illegal firearms

The governor offered a glimpse into efforts to confiscate illegal firearms, which he said have been a “record success” in recent years.

Officers seized 30 firearms and 1,646 rounds of ammunition in 2021, according to Mr. Rankin. In 2022, he said, they seized 49 firearms, 17 imitation firearms, and 572 rounds. They have also already seized 16 firearms this year.

Asked if these seizures were made at the territory’s borders, Mr. Collins said the vast majority were on land.

Mr. Rankin added, “Some of them are relatively simple pistols, but as I think as everybody’s aware, some of them are high-velocity weapons which have been seized.”

Illegal firearms have played a role in most of territory’s recent murders, he said, adding that more needs to be done at the border to keep out such weapons.

Increased resources

Mr. Rankin also noted that the government provided additional funding to the police force via a supplementary budget earlier this month.

Dr. Wheatley added, “We recognise that prevention is better than the cure, so it is important that we invest in people to ensure they have a strong foundation, resistant to the temptation of crime.”

Further resources, he said, will be allocated for customs and immigration.

In recent years, the United Kingdom has also provided about $2 million of funding to support police training, provide technology including body-worn cameras, and assist with police station renovations in Road Town and Virgin Gorda, Mr. Rankin said.

The UK government also supplied four speedboats and Police Marine Unit training, according to the government.

“The boats are all now operational, with one of them due to be based and crewed in Virgin Gorda,” Mr. Rankin said. “These boats have already proved their worth, being used directly in the operation carried out by the Marine Unit on July 7 in Anguilla waters, resulting in the arrest of six persons and the seizure of two tonnes of cocaine which we believe was destined for the BVI.”

Mr. Collins said 18 officers are now part of the marine unit, and in early August they plan to launch a presence on Virgin Gorda.

Criminal proceedings

Asked about additional resources for processing criminal cases, Mr. Rankin noted that the judiciary is separate from the roles of the governor and premier. However, he said efforts are in the works to speed up court processes.

“We’ve got too many people in the prison on remand, awaiting trial,” he said.

Dr. Wheatley added that the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions has received additional resources based on its requests, and the government will continue to maintain a dialogue about its needs.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also plans to provide up to $1 million for a wholesale review of VI law enforcement agencies per Commission of Inquiry recommendations, Mr. Rankin said.

“The International Police Assistance Service are supporting the establishment of a new vetting unit, with a view to ensuring that all law enforcement officers are subject to vetting by the end of 2023, providing confidence that officers uphold the values that the public rightly expects,” Mr. Rankin added.