V.I. homicide rate still among world's highest
Published: January 24, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Every six days.
That is how often, on average, the Virgin Islands mourned a homicide victim in calendar year 2012.
The territory recorded 59 homicides, including six vehicular homicides, during the course of the year, amounting to an annual rate of about 56 homicides per 100,000 in population.
The annual total is below the territory's record of 66 homicides in 2010. However, it marks a 20 percent spike over the 49 homicides recorded in 2011 and solidifies the territory's rank during the last decade as one of the world's deadliest places on a per-capita basis.
The territory averaged 42 homicides per 100,000 residents from 2004 to 2009. Including figures from 2010, 2011 and 2012, that average has now risen to more than 45 per 100,000 residents during the last three years.
This makes the Virgin Islands' homicide rate about 10 times higher than the U.S. average of 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011, the most recent year of data published by the FBI.
Few places in the mainland United States see more than 10 homicides per 100,000 in population, and even fewer - in fact, only two - topped a rate of 20 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011, according to the FBI data. Those were the Detroit metropolitan area, with a rate of 20.3, and the New Orleans metro area, with a rate of 23.7.
More places in Puerto Rico come closer to the V.I. homicide rate. Puerto Rico's metropolitan areas, such as Fajardo, Ponce and San Juan, saw homicide rates higher than 30 per 100,000 people in 2011, but the highest, in Fajardo, was 37.1. The overall rate for Puerto Rico in 2011 was 30.6 homicides per 100,000 people.
No state in the mainland comes close to either territory's rate. The highest rates recorded in 2011 were in Washington, D.C., at 17.5 homicides per 100,000 people, and in Louisiana, with a rate of 11.2, according to the FBI data.
The territory's 2012 rate of 56 homicides per 100,000 people is also among the highest in the world, according to 2011 figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.N. statistics track only "intentional homicide," defined as any "unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person." Removing vehicular homicides from the Virgin Islands' rate to adjust for that difference, the territory's rate would be at 50.4 in 2012.
The only countries with clearly higher rates were Honduras, with 91.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011, and El Salvador, with 69.2 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011, according to the U.N. data. The territory's rate also would be in the same ballpark as Cote d'Ivoire, which last reported a homicide rate in 2008, at which point it was 56.9 per 100,000 people.
Jamaica has seen rates higher than the Virgin Islands in recent years, reporting rates of 61 in 2009 and 52 in 2010. But Jamaica's homicide rate fell to 40.9 per 100,000 in 2011, the most recent year included in the U.N. report.
Contributing to the territory's homicide rate are a multitude of influences, from governmental factors, such as the efficacy of police and the lack of effective intervention programs for troubled youth, to social factors, such as a burgeoning gang culture and an influx of unlicensed firearms, according to law enforcement, political and academic sources who have analyzed the issue.
But there is at least one other factor, often a deeply personal one, that anyone who has lived in the territory long enough will recognize: revenge.
"It befuddles me," said Elma Brathwaite, a social worker and coordinator of the Victims Services Unit at the V.I. Justice Department for more than a decade. "But that's the problem: At what point does it stop? There's always the need to retaliate, to get back at someone, and that's something that's ingrained in these young men. They always have to take revenge out on whoever took out their friend or family member. So how do we end this circle of crime among these young men?"
Drugs, guns, gangs
It is no secret among local, national and international law enforcement authorities that the proliferation of drugs, guns and gangs is correlated with high rates of violent crime, specifically homicide.
V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer listed drugs, gangs, the availability of guns and "the attitudes of our young people, primarily our males," as among the top factors he sees behind the territory's homicide rate.
"In too many, if not all, of these killings, at the end, I think you're seeing that the use of marijuana is a factor in giving the courage or lessening the inhibition," Frazer said. "They may get upset, go home, start smoking and get a little high, and it lowers their inhibition and it gets their anger up more, and they say, 'Yeah, I really could do something about that. I'm going to do something about this.' And they go."
National and international studies expand on these observations, including a 2011 report on the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area from the U.S. Justice Department that describes a rise in trafficking in drugs, such as cocaine, in the Eastern Caribbean.
"In the USVI, local independent distributors also commit violent crimes to maintain or gain control of the retail markets," the report states. "Violence by drug traffickers in the region has become indiscriminate, endangering the lives of public housing residents and innocent bystanders."
William Curtis, a former V.I. Justice Department investigator who is now a criminal justice professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, has written numerous papers about the rise of gang culture in the territory. He said the gang problem here in many ways mirrors the patterns seen in the mainland, though with a considerable time lag.
Youths, he said, are most at risk between seventh and ninth grade. He said that is about when the learning environment in our schools switches from a "learning to read" to a "reading to learn" model. Those who struggle with reading cannot keep up and quickly lose interest in school, so they look for support elsewhere, according to Curtis.
"They go back to their neighborhoods and see some kids are lookouts for drug dealers; they're making some money on the side," Curtis said. "And once they get into that, school is no longer important to them."
Another layer of support - from the family unit - also frequently fails because of social ills, such as drug use and poverty, he said.
"Of course the gangs see this, so what happens? The gang member becomes their family," Curtis said. "The gang clothes them, feeds them, takes care of them - loves them. So where do you think their loyalties are? And now they get indoctrinated into gang culture. Their whole life now is involved in that."
However, the problem is not restricted to poor families, and any young person can fall into gang activity if there is a lack of parental involvement, according to Curtis.
"You can't have parents, when they see their kids coming into the house with $150 sneakers and you know the kid don't have no job and you didn't buy it for the kid, don't just turn your head and say, 'Oh, I'm glad he got sneakers,'" Curtis said. "Find out where the heck he got these sneakers from."
Frazer said the main law enforcement concern related to the homicide rate is to get more cops on the streets.
"I think we've always had a problem for quite a few years now of our numbers being less than they should be for our communities," Frazer said. "This administration has been trying to increase those numbers as fast as we can with the resources we have. We need more police officers to give a greater presence."
According to a list of government salaries, the Virgin Islands employed 295 police officers - or about 2.8 per 1,000 residents - in fiscal year 2012. That does not include higher-ranking officers, such as detectives, sergeants and lieutenants.
The U.S. average is between 1.8 and 2.6 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Also, police in the territory have failed to make arrests in about two-thirds of the "solvable" homicides during the last two years, according to Daily News records.
Frazer agreed that a low arrest or "solvability" rate - about 32 percent territory-wide in 2011 and 2012 - makes it difficult to create a public perception of law and order. Even if Frazer's prosecutors had a 100 percent conviction rate - he declined to provide the actual rate for this story - two-thirds of the territory's killers still would never be brought to justice.
"It does concern me if we have a low solvability rate," Frazer said. "Certainly if it has dropped off quite a bit from where it was, certainly we want to take the steps necessary to get that back up."
The V.I. Police Department solved or made arrests in about 70 percent of cases in 2010, according to Daily News records.
Meanwhile, instability has been the norm atop the Police Department. Five different men have been in charge of the Police Department during the last four years.
Attempts during the last two weeks to arrange sit-down interviews for this story with several leaders of the V.I. Police Department, including former Commissioner Henry White Jr., St. Thomas-St. John Police Chief Darren Foy and St. Croix Acting Chief James Parris, were not successful. Police spokeswoman Melody Rames said last week that White and Foy were aware of the interview request but had not agreed to schedule interviews.
Acting Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr., who was appointed to the post on Tuesday, said he would need additional time to fully analyze the homicide rate. But Querrard, a former chief, lieutenant and sergeant in the St. Thomas-St. John District, made it clear that even one homicide is unacceptable.
"I know a concern for a lot of people is the murder rate," Querrard said. "The way I look at it, one is too many. If it's one or it's 50, it is too many."
According to Curtis, the territory lacks effective gang intervention programs in its schools and jails. He also said some - but not all - community leaders still fail to recognize the influence of gangs.
"A blind man could see the signs, and yet there are some community leaders who will still say there are no gangs," Curtis said. "It's like someone getting diagnosed with a debilitating disease, like refusing to acknowledge, 'Yeah, I've got cancer,' or saying, 'No, I'm not HIV positive.' It's that type of mentality. But it's here, and its going to be here for a long time."
Curtis recommended at least two major outreach efforts to address the territory's problem with gangs. One should focus on ensuring junior high students do not fall behind and into gang activity, and the other should focus on law enforcement and the Bureau of Corrections to curb youths' gang involvement once it already has begun.
"Just locking them up doesn't solve it," Curtis said. "A lot of people go to jail, and it's like gang university."
Brathwaite concurred that the problem requires a multi-faceted approach. She also pointed beyond public policy considerations to something psychological, what amounts to, in essence, a shortcoming of empathy, where those who are close to homicide victims fail to realize that by avenging that person's death, they will only be perpetuating the forces that helped end their own loved one's life.
"I think that the most difficult part of it is that these young men do not even think about it," Brathwaite said. "They're so focussed on killing each other, they don't think about the consequences. When I have a parent or loved one come in, it's so heart-breaking, so heart-wrenching. I just wish these young men would think something about what they're doing to the family members. They're so focussed on getting back at the person who caused the death of their friend or gang member or whatever they just don't think about it."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.The Virgin Islands had 59 homicides, of which six were vehicular homicides, in 2012. Of those, 30 were on St. Thomas, 28 were on St. Croix and one was on St. John.
Kendall Petersen Jr., 30, was shot Jan. 5 by a V.I. police officer who was executing a search warrant at his home on St. Croix. Officer David Stevens Jr. was charged with involuntary manslaughter and third-degree assault.
Manuel Alfonseca, 27, was shot and killed near Paradise Mills on St. Croix on Jan. 9.
Sylvester Hodge and Michael Javios, both 29, were shot multiple times Jan. 12 in Mutual Homes housing community on St. Croix.
Robert Johnson, 73, was found murdered in his home on Jan. 18.
Aliya Robles, 17, and Jolicia Wilson, 18 died Jan. 22 after being hit by a car along Weymouth Rhymer Highway on St. Thomas. Karen J. Williams was charged with drunken driving and negligent homicide.
Abnet Joseph, 50, was found on Jan. 28 with multiple stab wounds on the road leading up to Mountain Top on St. Thomas.
Yoilin Polanco, 33, was found shot to death in a parked Honda Civic on St. Thomas on Feb. 6.
Four-month-old Jemeson Beauvoir died Feb. 10 on St. Thomas. Rochelle Blyden, 41, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and other charges.
Jadahl Bastien and Glen Blyden, both 19, shot each other to death Feb. 11 in Sugar Estate on St. Thomas.
Gilberto Parilla died four days after being punched in the face and having his dentures lodge in his throat at Gasworks in Bovoni on St. Thomas on Feb. 17. Alejandro Lima, 25, was charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Christian Soto, 40, was hit and killed on Feb. 20 while walking in the street. Owen Browne, 27, is charged with negligent homicide.
Shamal Smith, 24, was shot and killed in the Paul M. Pearson housing community on St. Thomas on Feb. 24.
Nemecio Camacho III, 24, was shot in Estate Bonne Esperance on St. Croix on Feb. 27 and died on Feb. 29 at Luis Hospital.
Deneil Brow, 22, was shot and killed outside Shauma Service Station on St. Croix on March 9.
Leroy Jardin, 69, died from a machete attack at his home in Estate Adventure Hill on St. Croix on March 11. A 16-year-old boy was charged in connection with the death.
A 40-year-old man was killed in a hit-and-run accident March 12 on Queen Mary Highway on St. Croix.
Kyran Finney, 19, died from gunshot wounds on March 27 in the Upper Love area on St. Croix.
Lincoln Lewis, 21, was found shot to death in his vehicle in Pillsbury Heights on St. Croix on April 9.
Ernestine Carty, 64, was stabbed to death in her Tutu Hi-Rise apartment April 25 on St. Thomas. Kareem Mulraine, 22, is charged with murder.
George Erskine, 66, was found stabbed to death in Cassi Hill on St. Thomas on April 30.
Gilbert Hendricks, 32, was shot in a drive-by May 10 near Five Corners on St. Croix and died two days later. Elvin Wrensford, 27, and Craig Muller, 27, are charged with the murder.
Mohammed Salem, 18, was shot dead in his vehicle in Estate Solberg on St. Thomas on May 11.
Kahmal Simmonds, 21, was shot to death May 19 near the vegetable market on Company Street on St. Croix.
Jose Fuentes, 22, was shot to death near the car wash in Contant on St. Thomas on May 25.
Gerald Jackson, 23, died in a shootout with police in Contant on St. Thomas on May 26.
Isaac Gonzalez, 24, was shot to death at LBJ housing community on St. Croix on May 27.
Kashawn Stephens, 18, was stabbed June 3 inside the Hush night club near Market Square on St. Thomas. Randey Orlando Gumbs, 18, was charged with murder.
Richard Seaman, 40, was killed by a car June 19 near McDonald's at Tutu Park Mall on St. Thomas. Anthony Charles, 37, was charged with negligent homicide.
Carleto Blake, 23, was shot to death July 3 at Bergs Home housing community on St. Thomas.
Ali Yanes, 33, was shot to death at the Soto Town Mini Mart in Contant on St. Thomas on July 15.
Ron Saudatt, 31, died after being hit by a drunk driver on July 16 in Mount Pleasant on St. Croix. Ralph Perez, 55, is charged with DUI and negligent driving.
Francisco Budhoo, 32, was shot to death July 16 in the Lorraine Village apartments on St. Croix.
Edward Williams, 40, was shot in a vehicle on Hard Labor Road in Estate Grove Place on St. Croix on July 18.
Kari Gumbs, 28, was killed in a drive-by shooting July 22 on Queen Mary Highway on St. Croix.
Sabree Spencer, 27, was found shot dead in Mon Bijou on St. Croix on Aug. 5.
Tiny Jah Jarvis, 31, was shot to death at Bellevue Village housing community on St. John on Aug. 17. Ralph Titre, 23, was charged with murder.
Ecliff James, 36, was gunned down inside Club 54 nightclub in Christiansted on Aug. 18.
Otis James, 44, was found shot dead in the road near Western Cemetery on St. Thomas on Aug. 21.
David Payne, 30, was found shot dead in front of his Anna's Retreat residence on St. Thomas on Sept. 7.
Andre Jules Tanis, 39, was shot and killed near Friendly Bar in Savan on St. Thomas on Sept. 7.
John Jacob Bierowski, 26, was found dead in his residence on St. Croix on Sept. 14.
Shawn Ian Drew, 26, was shot and killed Sept. 22 in the Water Gut area on St. Croix.
V.I. Police Officer Colvin Georges dies on Sept. 29 as a result of a May 26 shootout while on patrol in the Contant area on St. Thomas.
Kareem Moses, 19, was gunned down in Tutu Hi-Rise housing community on St. Thomas on Oct. 1.
Alfredo de la Rosa Villar, 33, was shot to death in Anna's Retreat on St. Thomas on Oct. 14. Edrit Ramon Reyes Florian, 29, was charged with murder.
Liston Powell Jr., 45, was found shot to death on Oct. 22 in Savan on St. Thomas.
Emmanuel Artis, 17, was killed in a shooting at Ann Ambramson Pier on St. Croix on Oct. 23. A boy was charged with murder.
Winnelta Fredericks, 28, was shot to death in a vehicle Oct. 30 in Frederiksted.
An unidentified man was shot and later died at Luis Hospital on St. Croix on Nov. 23.
Languedoc Ainsworth, 56, was stabbed to death in his Estate Mon Bijou home on St. Croix on Nov. 24. Anthony Lloyd, 27, was charged with murder.
Aldon Ashley, 19, was stabbed to death after he tried to steal a man's car on Brookman Road on St. Thomas on Nov. 26.
Edwin Carmona, 30, and Franklyn Johnson Jr., 20, were shot and killed Nov. 30 by police at a Beeston Hill home on St. Croix that police said they and a 15-year-old minor had burglarized. The minor was charged with the murders.
Keith Dawson Jr., 22, was shot and killed in Sub Base on St. Thomas on Dec. 8.
Michael Greer, was fatally shot outside his home in Estate Thomas on St. Thomas on Dec. 11.
William Hyde, 65, died in a stateside hospital on Dec. 17 of injuries he suffered during a beating Nov. 23 at Magens Bay beach on St. Thomas. Five boys were arrested and charged.