St. John Tradewinds News

Yvonne Tharpes: From Police Officer to Legal Counsel, Always for People

Yvonne Tharpes

Acting Chief Legal Counsel for the Virgin Islands Legislature Yvonne Tharpes has a strong sense of public service and throughout her more than 30 years in the Virgin Islands has strived to give a voice to disenfranchised members of the community. “The community is what you put into it,” said Tharpes, when the busy lady finally found a bit of time to come into the office for an interview on a recent afternoon. “The people in the community have to come around one common interest; we need shared community goals of improving our society.”

The L.A. native first arrived in the islands in 1967, touching down in St. Croix as a volunteer with Vista Domestic Peace Corps, now known as Americorps. Long before she became a lawyer, Tharpes’ fight for equality was the catalyst that landed her in Love City.

Early Fight for Equality
“The program was only allowing married couples to come to St. John and as I was already in my second year of service at that time, I thought it was unfair,” said Tharpes. “I was already arguing for equal protection — I didn’t know St. John so it wasn’t that I wanted to come here, it was just on general principles.” St. John seemed like a fantasy paradise out of a story book to the young Tharpes when she first arrived. After two and one-half years volunteering with the Vista program on island, Tharpes returned to L.A. but it didn’t take long before she packed up and headed for St. John for good. “I moved back here in 1973; after I returned to L.A. my family was coercing me to come back down here so I did,” Tharpes recalled.

Shortly after she arrived “home” on St. John, Tharpes worked for the National Park Service. “I started out with the National Park, in the interpretive division as a park technician while I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Social Sciences with a minor in Psychology,” said Tharpes adding that she attended the University of the Virgin Islands when it was still known as the College of the Virgin Islands.

Work with Troubled Teens
After graduation, Tharpes worked with the Juvenile Probation and Intake program which was a division of the Department of Social Welfare where she helped delinquent youth in need of supervision. “I had experience working with teenagers before, and I like the age group because they pose a lot of challenges and I think they related to me and I could relate to them,” said Tharpes.

Tharpes then worked as a social worker with Foster Care, a mental health worker with the Department of Health and as a police officer with the V.I. Police Department. “I am accustomed to working with people and being a police officer gave me an opportunity to protect and serve the community,” said Tharpes. Serving the community and working with the disenfranchised wasn’t enough for Tharpes.

Law School Dreams
“From the time that I was young, I wanted to do some work with counseling in a mental health setting and I wanted to go to law school,” Tharpes said. “I did get a chance to do the counseling bit so there was one thing left.” A determined Tharpes set out for Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University pursuing her dream and a Juris Doctor Degree.

“I had to adjust to the weather – I was always freezing in D.C.,” said Tharpes. “In law school, though, your life is devoted to study; I closed the library every night.” After receiving her law degree from Howard University and graduating fourth in her class, Tharpes returned to the warm weather in Miami to pursue her LI.M., a masters degree in ocean and coastal laws. It was during the stress of law school that Tharpes discovered one of her biggest enjoyments in life – the blues.

The Blues Eases School Stress
“My mother was always a blues fan but I didn’t really like it when I was young,” said the now avid blues fan. “I started appreciating it more when I was in law school because it was the one thing that I could afford to do – come home late at night from the library and listen to music; it kept me sane.” Tharpes returned to the Virgin Islands after completing law school and worked first as a legal counsel for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources’ Division of Environmental Protection where she “regulated just about everybody.”

After working in the private sector for a while, Tharpes returned to DPNR, this time for the Coastal Zone Management Commission. “That is where my LI.M. really came in handy,” said Tharpes. “What we did was manage the development of the shorelines of the Virgin Islands through a permitting process and we regulated land use activities in the coastal zone area.” Tharpes continued working for the government but went to the V.I. Legislature this time, first as a deputy chief legal counsel and then as the acting chief legal counsel – a position she has held for the last three years.

Long Hours at Legislature
“We conduct all of the legal business for the legislature and advise all of the senators impartially,” explained Tharpes. “We provide all the legal services including drafting all legislation and other documents like leases and contracts.” Tharpes commutes daily to St. Thomas and usually works on one of her days off as well.

“I usually give the government a free day on Saturday because there is really so much to do,” said Tharpes, adding that the five-attorney strong legal team has already researched over 2,000 bill requests for the V.I. senate this year. In addition to her legal career, Tharpes serves on the board of directors for The Safety Zone, a private non-profit organization which provides counselling and numerous other services to victims of crimes including domestic violence.

Safety Zone’s Important Work
“It’s important work because domestic violence is a serious problem, and not just in the Virgin Islands, but throughout the U.S.,” said Tharpes. “It exists in all walks of life, all cultures and all economic groups.” “It’s crucial to eradicate domestic violence in order to strengthen the family life in the community,” she continued. Tharpes also serves on the St. John Kids And The Sea (KATS) board of directors as well as the V.I. Real Estate Commission.

Working with so many different facets of the community has given Tharpes a unique perspective on the issues that have recently taken prominence following the report of rape on the East End.

Tensions Not Surprising
“I think what has happened is what you learn in Sociology 101, when a community has a strain on resources, then conflicts are created — here there is a strain on housing,” said Tharpes. “Some of the things that are happening right now are just symptoms that the community has grown apart and people don’t know one another anymore.” The community needs to be patient and allow the V.I.P.D. and other officials to conduct their investigations. “I think everyone needs to have some patience and that they need to allow the enforcement agencies a chance to really do their job,” said Tharpes. “Don’t jump to conclusions; things aren’t always what they seem.” “I urge the people to come together over the need to make the community safe and allow the law enforcement to do their job — don’t take the law into your own hands,” she continued. Tharpes understands the stress and frustration that people are feeling in the wake of the reported violence and the subsequent lack of information from officials.

Stress From Not Knowing
“The stress is over not knowing, but investigations take time,” said Tharpes. “If someone is going to make a case they really have to make sure that the evidence is there.” “There is always a conflict between the community’s right to know and law enforcement officials conducting a systematic, thorough investigation,” she continued. Resolutions will only be found when there is cooperation between the community and the VIPD, according to Tharpes. “I think that the community lacks faith in the police department and both the community and the police need to work together,” said Tharpes. “I think it has to be a joint effort with the police and citizens to bridge some gaps and restore faith in the police – there has to be community cooperation.” As a former police officer, Tharpes thinks that VIPD officials are classified unfairly. “The police get an unfair and hasty generalization when people are not seeing results, but being a former police officer, I know that there are a lot of dedicated officers,” said Tharpes, adding that police work is a difficult and scary job. In addition to taking elected officials to task to release pertinent information, community members should realize the power that they have, Tharpes added.

People Have the Power
“Senators and other leaders need to be called on to solve some of these issues but everything is supposed to be for and by the people,” said Tharpes. “People have a lot more power than they realize.” More than 30 years after first arriving on St. John, Tharpes still loves the island’s people, culture, diversity and pace of life despite the recent trend of development. “Everyone misses the good old days, but these will be the good old days soon,” said Tharpes.