On the day of his swearing-in ceremony on April 19, 2021, Police Commissioner Mark Collins was unequivocal about his goals over his three-year term: maintaining the security of the Virgin Islands and continuing the battle against serious and organised crime. However, to battle the code of silence that often hampers fighting crime, he knew he needed to build trust with the community. So he asked residents to give him a call on his personal phone.
“I’ve only been in this territory for a little over a month,” he said at the time. “I have no allegiances or bonds with anyone. There is nothing to fear with me.”
Mr. Collins, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who previously served as chief constable of the Dyfed-Powys Police in Wales, arrived at a crucial time for the territory, which had recently opened up after nearly a year-long border closure, and was facing a wave of violent crime, major drug busts, and economic uncertainty — all in the midst of an ongoing Commission of Inquiry launched amid allegations of high-level corruption and other crime.
To mark the anniversary of his arrival, Mr. Collins sat down with the Beacon last Thursday to say that yes, he’s still getting calls on his cell phone — and he also summed up his progress toward his original goals and addressed other challenges, surprises and controversies of his first year.
The below interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Claire Shefchik.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND CHALLENGES
Q: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment over the past year?
A: Probably the biggest accomplishment is managing to get some more resources for the organisation and launching of neighbourhood policing, community policing — making sure that we’ve got community officers in every district. That’s been a good step forward.
Q: And then in the next year, what’s your number one goal?
A: My number one goal in the next year actually is to investigate and bring to justice some of the historic cases that we’ve got. I put a small team together looking at some of the historic murder cases, and my hope is that we can solve some of those cases and bring some closure to the families. That’s a real drive for me going forward.
Q: Any cases in particular that you’re focused on?
A: Well, I think they’re all important. I think a particular case was the shooting of a guy in a parking lot. And there was a little girl in the backseat of the car [in the 2017 murders of Franklin Penn Jr. and 11-year-old Trinity Moses]. It was a very, very, very, very sad case. And that needs to be investigated again.
Q: Looking back at the past year, what do you think you could have done better or handled differently?
A: Well, you always reflect on everything you do. I don’t know about handling anything differently. Potentially some of the negotiations around more funding and recruiting. Now, you can always handle things slightly differently. But I don’t have any regrets on anything that I’ve come out with and said in the media or my vision and mission for the organisation. I think I’ve been pretty open and honest about that. I think you could always reflect on some of the language that you use and some of the things that you say, but I’ve got no regrets about anything I’ve said.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest challenge in this job so far?
A: I think the biggest challenge is coming to terms with recognising the fact that you’re working in an overseas territory. The pace of life is very different to that in the [United Kingdom]. So as a former chief constable in the UK, I was very quick and able to get things done and move things along very, very quickly. Here, you have to just realise that things take a long time to get done. And of course, you’re working with the Governor’s Office, Deputy Governor’s Office; you’re working in collaboration with the Joint Task Force, and other areas as well. And I think things just don’t move that quickly. And you have to accept that.
Q: On a related note, what would you say surprised you the most about the job? Were you expecting something and you found something else, for example?
A: I think one of the things that surprised me has been the level of the violence used in some of the murders that we’ve had. I mean, we will categorise murders in the UK as sort of A, B or C. Without a doubt, every murder here is a category A murder. And nearly every one has involved a firearm and multiple shots being fired from that firearm. That would be something that I wouldn’t be used to, particularly in the UK. So that the level of violence is quite scary.
Q: So why do you think that is? Would you care to speculate on why there’s such a level of violence [in some of the crimes committed] here as opposed to in the UK?
A: I need to quantify what I mean. The level of crime here is actually very low. We have about 1,150 crimes a year. But we’ve certainly had a spate in the last 14 or 15 months of some quite serious shooting offences. And they are usually aimed at people that are infused with each other. You know, there’s certainly the guns and the gangs and the drug violence that goes on, and normal people going about their business wouldn’t come across it or see any of that, but that level of violence is particularly frightening. And I think The Honourable Justice Richard Floyd also made similar comments as well, about the level of violence and gun crime that we see.
VIOLENCE, DRUGS AND ORGANISED CRIME
Q: So do you believe that much of the violence over the past few years is linked to the drug trade? And if so, could you give a percentage?
A: I think it’s hard to give a percentage. But I think without a doubt, the murders that we’ve seen are linked to serious and organised crime and criminality. And part of that spins from the drug trade and drug trafficking, without a doubt.
Q: So where do you believe the drugs are coming from? Where are they going? Would you say there’s a route?
A: We have a very close proximity to the US Virgin Islands. So there is a route there; we are very close to Puerto Rico and the American channels, and so drugs without a doubt will be coming to the BVI, but also being transported from the BVI up through the American routes and onwards into the USA, probably, and wider Europe. We seized nearly three tons of cocaine last year, and we recovered over 30 firearms last year — the biggest haul we’ve ever had. And already in the last four months we’ve recovered 45 firearms. These are not ball-bearing guns and starting pistols. These are AK-47s and high-powered prohibited weapons. So we have got some issues here that we’re trying to work through.
Q: So where would you say you are in your investigation of the drug trade? Should we expect more arrests? Should we expect more progress on this? Is there any kind of international side to the investigation?
A: We will have to work very closely with our colleagues in the US. We’re intelligence-led. So clearly, if intelligence comes in that we know that drug trafficking is going to take place and trading is going to take place, then we will act upon that.
Q: Do you believe this level of criminality is something new to the VI in just the past couple of years, or is this something that’s been going on for a long time and it’s just now coming out due to recent circumstances, whether border closures due to the pandemic or some other factor?
A: I think probably the low-level criminality has always been here. I think it’s probably escalated in the last couple of years and we’ve been more attuned to it and we’ve been more successful for a number of reasons. But I think probably low-level criminality has always been. And I think that goes for any island, any jurisdiction really. I think there is always criminality there. But it’s probably escalated, and without a doubt the pandemic would have put people under pressure in terms of, you know, feeding families, paying bills, and things like that, which leads to criminality, of course. We certainly saw an escalation in terms of some of the burglary offences and robbery offences that we saw happening, and thefts from vehicles and things like that. But certainly, the pandemic will play into criminality and levels of criminality.
COMMISSION OF INQUIRY
Q: Former Governor [Gus Jaspert] said that he launched the Commission of Inquiry in part because he had heard allegations linking some of the “highest holders of office” to cocaine trafficking and other organised crime. But we’ve not really seen that probed too much in the COI, at least the part that’s been aired publicly. Are the police investigating allegations that senior officeholders are involved in drug trafficking or other organised crime?
Q. So, in that case, would you say that you’ve found no evidence supporting such allegations?
A: All I would say is if I get an allegation of any crime at all, committed by any person, we will investigate it. That’s it.
Q: Have you been involved in discussions with [Governor John Rankin] or other UK officials about what will happen after the Commission of Inquiry?
A: No, because I obviously gave my live evidence to the Commission of Inquiry around law enforcement and some of my views on law enforcement. But of course, the Commission of Inquiry report has only just gone to the governor, and he’s made a public statement. He wants to digest it, and will make a comment after Easter. And I’m not party to any other conversations.
Q: So would you say that you don’t have really any further information than what’s already been released?
A: No information at all.
Q: Have you discussed any possible allegations against officials privately with the COI or anybody involved in the COI?
Q: Would you say the UK has been involved in any investigations into organised crime here, and if so how closely have they been involved?
Q. No, they haven’t?
A. I’m going to stay quite clear of that. Honestly, you know, nothing’s coming to my desk in terms of any of this sort of stuff.
Q: And how about the US? Would you be able to say how closely the US has been involved in any investigations?
A: Nothing to my knowledge.
Q: Is there any US law enforcement presence here in the BVI right now to your knowledge?
Q. How many UK police officers are currently in the territory serving on the police force?
Q. And in what roles are they serving?
A. Just to quantify that, we had 28 officers here some three years ago. That’s down to seven now and reducing, and that’s partly due to the training and development that we’ve been able to put in place for local officers. The officers, the main thing that they’re doing is working with the Major Crime Team on some of the murder investigations. That’s mainly their role, and work on my intelligence team as well.
Q: Frandy Martin Jr. was killed in a boat collision last October. Police subsequently arrested someone and released them without charges at the time. We’ve just now received word that charges were filed in the matter. There have been some questions about the process and why it took as long as it did to file charges. What can you say about why it took as long as it did and what happened in that incident?
A: Well, because there needs to be a proper detailed investigation and lots of work needs to go into that, right? And the police’s role is to collect the evidence and present it in a file for the director of public prosecutions, who then will review the matter and issue the charges. So, unfortunately, it does take time. But actually, lots of these big investigations take time and they need to take time to give them proper due diligence on the matter and to collect every single bit of evidence that we possibly can. And that’s to be fair to the families of the lost loved ones, and also to be fair to those persons that face allegations and charges.
Q: Kelvin Turnbull Jr. and Khori Prince are said to have gone missing on New Year’s Eve, likely after they boarded a boat. What have police done to try to find them, specifically as possible if you can, and are they still searching? And do you have any idea where they might be?
A: We’ve spoken to both families at length. There’s a family liaison officer in place and we followed up on every single lead that we’ve had. And we’ve liaised with other overseas territories where we’ve had potential sightings or potential intelligence and information on where they might have gone to. But at this particular moment, there is no concrete evidence as to where they are. We have to just accept sometimes that some people don’t want to be found. And some people just, you know, go.
Q: Would you say you believe they’re still alive, though?
A: I have no reason to believe they’re not. None at all.
Q: When people go missing at sea, there’s often a major search involving planes from the US Coast Guard and [staff of Virgin Islands Search and Rescue], but it seems like that didn’t happen in this case. Could you explain why not?
A: Because we didn’t know they’d gone missing at sea. There was no information or intelligence to suggest that they’d gone missing at sea. There’s been no boat found, to my knowledge.
Q: The boat the pair were believed to be driving was a fairly large, expensive boat. Was it reported stolen? And were they given permission to use it to your knowledge?
A: I don’t know. I don’t know where the boat came from.
Q: One of these men, Khori Prince, had been sentenced to three years in prison in December on top of time already served. Therefore, he presumably should have been in prison at the time he climbed in a boat and disappeared. Do you know why he was released from prison?
A: I think that’s a matter for the court. I mean, the court would have issued their certificate of his release and dates. That would have gone to the prison, and the prison would have made sure that those dates were followed.
Q: So would you say you specifically don’t know why he was released?
A: Well, I’m guessing he was released because the court issued documentation to the fact that he could be released.
Q: But you don’t know why they issued that particular documentation?
A: Because they must have believed he’d served his time.
Q: Last month, the Immigration Department reported that eight detained migrants escaped from Hotel Castle Maria, and four Haitians reportedly escaped from a hotel in October. Have you identified any systemic security failings at the hotel? And if so, what has been done to fix them?
A: Collectively as a Joint Task Force, obviously we work together to try and keep people as safe as we possibly can to keep detainees where they should be. The security of those individuals is a matter for Immigration to comment on, but we have had a number of calls to Castle Maria Hotel over the preceding months in relation to escaped illegal migrants.
And that’s been well-documented in the media. And the security of those individuals is down to the Immigration Department and the security firms that they employ.
Q. On Dec. 17, police officers in riot gear responded to Hotel Castle Maria, when at least one of the detained migrants there began throwing stones at security guards in an apparent escape attempt. Police then entered the building and escorted detainees out. What happened next? Were the detainees deported?
A: What happens with the detainees at Hotel Castle Maria is they are detained because they’re illegally in the territory, and Immigration then deals with all of the matters to repatriate them to their home countries. So we regularly see persons leaving Hotel Castle Maria to go back to their home countries.
Whether it’s Venezuelans, Haitians, or Cubans, we’ve had lots of different nationalities there and they get repatriated. It’s like a revolving door if you like, because as 15, 20 go, we might get another boat that comes in and they need to be housed and looked after.
But you are right. We have responded to a number of calls from security officials that they’re concerned about situations that are escalating, and we have had to use public-order-trained officers to go and deal with those matters.
Q: After those particular incidents, do you know if those detainees are still there, or were they deported? This was after the one on Dec. 17.
A: I’m guessing they probably have gone by now. I’m guessing they probably have gone three months ago, four months ago. Quite a long time.
And I think we’ve had quite a lot leaving the territory, and others coming in. A few weeks ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, there were 28 just recovered off Virgin Gorda. So probably there’s a completely new crew there.
Q: Are any of these people asking for asylum?
A. Some people have asked for asylum.
Q: Could you speak to that any more about what the asylum process actually is?
A: I guess the situations are that if persons that arrive in the territory fear for their safety and lives if they were to go back to their home countries, they could seek political asylum.
Q: Is there a specific process that has to be followed according to international law?
A: There is a process and policy, but the very fact that we’ve had some people apply for asylum, then the facility is here for them to do so.
Q: Last May, Nickail Chambers died after being wounded in an altercation at the prison. In a recent interview, the governor said that inmates [apparently] held parties in the prison and that drugs and alcohol appeared to have been brought in from outside. Have police identified any security failings at the prison? And if so, what is being done to fix them?
A: No, we haven’t identified security risks at the prison. That wouldn’t be our job to do that. That would be a matter for the Ministry of Health. The prison doesn’t come under me whatsoever. All I can say to you is where we get allegations of inmates fighting or murder as in the stabbings that we’ve had recently, that we will go and investigate.
But we certainly don’t discuss security matters in prison; that is up to the ministers and the government.
JAMIEZ STOUTT MURDER
Q: In January, an arrest warrant was circulated in this territory and the USVI for Erick Rabsatt in connection with the murder of Jaimez Stoutt. Was Mr. Rabsatt ever located and questioned by the police?
A. Mr. Rabsatt is still at large. As you rightly say, we are working with colleagues to try and locate him.
Q. Would you say he’s still a suspect in the murder?
A. He’s the suspect.
Q. Are you exploring any other leads into this particular case?
A. We will look at all avenues of investigation. Obviously, it’s a full investigation. It’s a murder investigation. So that would include speaking to witnesses, collecting CCTV or things like that. The normal process.
Q. Police often conduct mass operations targeting illegal scooter riders, yet scooter riders continue to die in traffic accidents, including one very recently, in March. But is there a better way to enforce safe scooter riding?
A. Definitely. I mean, enforcement is only one element of it. I’m working together with colleagues in the Ministry of [Transportation, Works and Utilities]. I’m working with the minister of health. This cannot be a police-only response. It needs to be a community response. Unfortunately, we see people in hospital beds now that have got some very serious injuries due to accidents with scooters. My message has been very clear: Legalise yourselves, get your insurance, get your driving licence, and wear a safety helmet. We’ve had accidents where we’ve had fatalities: I think around five or six. Every one of those has been male, but every one of those is the father, a son, a brother, an uncle. That’s a tragic loss of life, and it’s completely unnecessary. But it needs to be not just a law enforcement approach but a community approach to solving this matter.
Q. In your view, is there any legislation that could be passed that might help with this issue?
A. Not really. The legislation is there. The legislation is quite clear in terms of the legalities that you need to have or ride a scooter. You need to be licensed, you need to be insured, and you need to wear a safety helmet. Those are the rules. The driving regulations are already there in terms of dangerous driving, driving without due care and attention, things like that. The legislation for those crimes are there, but we just need the community to come on board with us, and it needs to be messages from family and friends. Last year we seized 155 scooters and bikes. We’ll keep seizing them. But you know, it’s never-ending.
JOINT TASK FORCE
Q: I wanted to ask about the Joint Task Force, which has come up a lot. This has been in place, I think, since you’ve gotten here. How would you sum up the success of the Joint Task Force? What are the challenges and issues you’ve been facing?
A: The main bit for us on the Joint Task Force is the marine function, so the ability to go out with our colleagues at Customs and to intercept boats; to work together. The security of the territory: That’s what we do. Success is very difficult to measure. Suffice to say we’ve had a number of stops and a number of interdictions and a number of successes with drugs and things like that. The ability to work together as a Joint Task Force with joint intelligence is really important.
Q: Have you faced any challenges with these agencies working together?
A: Yes, there will always be situations where the police need to go and do some of their own business, Customs needs to go do some of their own things, but we were adult enough to say, “Well, you know, this week then, you’ve got your own challenges as an organisation. You just got to deal with that.” And we regroup; we meet every Thursday for regular meetings. We have a schedule that comes out every week on the postings.
Q: Would you say you have a good working relationship then?
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?
A. We’re moving on one year into a three-year term, and we’re looking forward to the next two years, and I want to praise the work that my officers and staff do every day. They make some significant inroads into some murder investigations that we’ve got. I think there are less scooters and bikes on the roads now than there were 12 months ago. I’m getting less complaints about noise than what I was getting. My focus is around community policing and getting more officers on the beat, and visibility.
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about community policing? What particular initiatives are you most excited about when it comes to community policing? What would you like the community to be more aware of in terms of what you’re working on?
A. That we’re listening to what their concerns are, because by putting a few officers in each district, you know, we’re back into the schools, back into the colleges, back into the youth groups, the community groups.
The public face of the police, keeping the human side of policing there. We’re out with a marine biologist to do turtle tagging, we’re doing other stuff in the career space, we’re encouraging young people to join the organisation. But it’s all about having that trust and confidence.
The biggest thing for me is trust and confidence in the police. And if we’ve got community officers out there engaging with the public every day, then that instils that community confidence, because you know who you’re talking to.
Q: I remember when you first arrived, you gave out your phone number very publicly for anyone who has any information. How did that go? Did you get calls? Did it lead to anything?
A: Lots of the calls were from people that wanted to discuss personal matters, in terms of situations that they hadn’t felt the police had dealt with properly. But other people wanted to share their experiences and share their thoughts about some of the crimes that have taken place. And give information as well.
Q: Are you still getting calls?
A: I do get calls. I get calls all the time. And one of the things I will say about that is I hope that as a result of people starting to have more trust in the police, they will want to come forward and speak to us about situations, and we welcome that.