St. John Watch: How Safe Are Our Ports? by Elton Lewis

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How safe are our ports? Federal agencies, namely, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are responsible for screening cargo prior to its release into the Virgin Islands community.

The mission of the U.S. Coast Guard is to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests in the nation’s and territories’ ports and waterways.

Although the Virgin Islands Police Depar-tment has a marine unit, its authority and responsibility are limited, and any overlapping of authorities can be very complicated as it relates to enforcement. Additionally, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, DPNR as well as the V.I. Port Authority all share some responsibility for port security.

If all these agencies were to enhance their detection processes, a greater number of illegal guns and other contraband would be off our streets. I believe that this would greatly help the VIPD to stem the tide of violent crimes committed with illegal guns and other crimes resulting from retaliation due to the sale of illegal drugs and other contraband.

The entry of contraband into this territory should be of great concern to us all as it is to the VIPD. Contraband such as stolen automobiles, weapons, potential terrorists, human cargo (illegal immigrants), and narcotics all support criminal and terrorist activities.

Port security used to be a topic of little interest to any agency not involved or adjacent to a port. And before 9/11, port security or port policing had little contact or relationship with local or even federal law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

Now, terrorism concerns have brought port security issues or the lack thereof to the attention of local law enforcement agencies.

It is said that we don’t manufacture guns or other contrabands in the Virgin Islands, or in the region, for that matter. This is in fact, a true statement, for the most part. Still, they enter our ports in alarming numbers.

Today, the potential for smuggling persons, terrorist devices, or contraband on water-borne cargo vessels into a port are very real, and should be very real to us here in the Virgin Islands, and to the rest of the Caribbean since we are surrounded by water. Regardless of the ports’ strategic importance or use, terrorism can have devastating implications for them.

Maritime port security, operational structures, regulations, challenges, and solutions, should remain of equal importance in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean as it is on the mainland, since the Virgin Islands is a designated transshipment point. Commercial/cargo port supports the transportation of commodities into and out of the port. Cruise/ferry supports the passengers on the inter-island cruise or ferry industry.

Limited security in ports has now become a thing of the past. Today, they are potential targets and have greater security. The safety and security of the ports in our territory are of paramount importance. Since we are surrounded by water, we are used as a transshipment point. Therefore, we should be using every effort to confront and overcome security issues as they relate to port security, since the Virgin Islands is used as the gateway to the U.S. mainland.

Our territorial ports have traditionally possessed limited control and security. In the past, recreational vessels could come and go without much interference and scrutiny. This must be corrected at all cost. It will benefit law enforcement as far as regional security, but at the same time it should be of little inconvenience to the owner of the vessel. We must carefully balance safety and pleasure.

The Virgin Islands Port Authority Police Department (VIPA) is the local law enforcement agency dealing with daily port security safety and security issues. However, all local law enforcement agencies should be prepared to respond to the possibilities of terrorist attacks and to assist our federal counterparts, as they assist us.