Civil Disobedience Incident (St. John)

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By Eltown Lewis, former Police Commissioner (October 2005)

Recent events on the island of St. John have lead to strife and turmoil amongst members of the community. The Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD), charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace, preventing crime and investigating criminal incidents, is acutely aware of tension in the small and traditionally community of St. John. In response, we have assigned additional manpower on the island in an effort to forestall any further incidents of violence and criminal acts. In addition, to augmenting the manpower, we intend to soon open a substation in Coral Bay to ensure a permanent presence in this area. We are very pleased that during the more than one week long protest rally on St. John, there were no reports of violence. While the rally was generally “peaceful,” there were a few reported incidents that could be characterized as passive resistance.

Protesters staged “sit-ins” at some St. John restaurants and took actions designed to disrupt the routine of other businesses. In an article appearing in the St. Croix Source online news source, it was reported that “St. John resident Ronnie Jones, who participated in some of the events, said the main purpose was to pressure law enforcement officials into providing information on the alleged rape of Esther Frett.” While I understand the people’s desire to learn more information on this case, it is certainly not the Police Department’s policy to publish details of an ongoing criminal investigation, in particular an alleged rape. To do so could compromise the investigation, unfairly tarnish someone’s reputation and possibly result in a miscarriage of justice. When an investigation has been completed and sufficient information has been collected to justify an arrest, one will be made. Until that time, it is our job to relentlessly pursue information, but not to publish it. We owe the crime victims and our community nothing less.

As Commissioner of Police, it is my responsibility to lead the Police Department in the proper direction and to engage the community to maintain public order and peace. Sadly, there are those people who would prefer disorder and confusion to advance their own agendas. We cannot play into their hands by allowing ourselves to be provoked into unwise actions, whether it is releasing details of an unfinished investigation, or taking inappropriate courses of action in the face of civil disobedience. If we do so, we are not serving the people of the Territory as they deserve.

It was reported, again in the St. Croix Source that “…the protesters also targeted Starfish Market by filling their carts with groceries then went through the check out and said they decided they didn't want the items.” I agree that this activity was bothersome and pointless, and while the business may have been disrupted, it did not violate any criminal laws. The protest action taken at the Starfish Market was particularly inappropriate and counter-productive, in that it targeted a business that has time and time again went above and beyond to assist the community during times of crisis.

Any police officers present while this incident occurred are correct by taking no official action. Taking improper police action may well have risked provoking some physical confrontation with the protesters, resulting in injury or property damage.

Such a situation would only have exposed the business, as well as the Police Department to possible liability. The job of the police is to prevent incidents of violence, not to provoke them. During the protest rally on St. John recently, the Starfish Market was generous in providing food and drinks not only to the many police officers present to maintain order on St. John, but the protesters as well. Such generosity shows true community spirit. I find it most unfortunate that such a good corporate citizen as Starfish Market was singled out for acts of civil disobedience, which served only to disrupt this business, but did nothing whatsoever toward solving any of the problems challenging the people of St. John.

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