SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Two new police officers — just out of the police academy — are bringing experience to the force that no police training program can give.
These two young officers about to begin their careers in law enforcement and community policing say that living in single-parent homes has infused empathy for the many issues that can appear when law enforcement is summoned.
“It helps to see more ways of life. It makes you more understanding of the things that can happen when that is a factor,” said Troy Pina, 22, in a recent interview. Another new officer starting this week, Justin Phannavong, 28, agreed.
“I see it as about being real,” he said, noting that “real” means being understanding and empathetic when looking at a situation, not just a violation or incident that required a police response and perhaps even a citation or arrest.
Both men who graduated a week ago from the Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy were among nearly 40 officers from 19 cities and towns in the state. They fulfilled a basic training requirement there and these two now start field training in South Kingstown.
These new officers — Pina who is Cape Verdean and Phannavong who is Laotian — also represent the diversity wanted by Chief Joel Ewing-Chow, who became the town’s new law enforcement leader last November.
Last November when he was officially named to the post, Ewing-Chow said he wanted the department to become more involved with the community.
“I want to see us do more outreach, whether it’s to underprivileged groups, neighborhood groups, whatever it may be. I think we can be a lot more proactive that way, instead of reactive,” he said at the time.
“What I want to do is break that down, say ‘We’re here, we’re regular people like you are, we have families, emotions. And we’re in this job because we want to be public servants, we want to help out,” he said in a November interview.
Understanding the Community
These recruits will help him keep to that promise. In an interview this week with The Independent, they discussed their commitment to community policing as well as an understanding of the cultural and other complicated factors involved in policing.
In particular, both officers said that they understand the challenges of raising children in single-parent homes because they were raised by their mothers. In South Kingstown, according the 2020 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, about 20 percent of South Kingstown children live in single-parent households.
Some community leaders say that number, based on 2010 U.S. Census population survey, may be higher today.
The number of children who grow up without a father in the home in the United States has reached concerning levels, according to various studies, and has had an impact on children’s development.
These problems have been found to extend into adolescence and adulthood. They can include an increased risk of substance use, depression, suicide, poor school performance, and involvement with the criminal justice system in some way, according to a review of studies by the Minnesota Psychological Association.
“The more opportunities a child has to interact with his or her biological father, the less likely he or she is to commit a crime or have contact with the juvenile justice system,” according to an association report.
Pina, of Seekonk, understands that result because of his experiences as both a swimming and unified track coach for children and teens. He sees the role of police officer also as mentor to young children and teens.
“You see a lot of people grow up who need help,” said Pina, a member of the 2021 Cape Verdean Olympic swim team that will compete this summer. He holds citizenship in both the United States and Cape Verde, the archipelago and island country in the central Atlantic Ocean.
“By being a (mentor), it shows how much you can change someone’s role so early. Some people don’t have that,” he said. Pina said that his mother, Maria, raised him and his sisters and that swimming coach Brian Cameron also inspired him.
Phannavong, a Woonsocket native, said that his growing up was “kind of tough” and that his mother, Donna, and especially his late grandmother and father’s mother, Bounthanh Manikhouth, were influential.
At Woonsocket High School he ran track from ninth grade through senior year, and was captain of his team.
They also encouraged his self-taught approach to guitar and keyboard. In addition, they supported his decision to enter the Rhode Island National Guard in which he served in infantry training for six years.
His mother was a foster parent, he said, and he mentored the children who lived with them.
“It’s important to put yourself in their shoes, to know what they are going through,” said Phannavong, who has a six-month-old son, Jaxon, with his wife, Alexandra. They live in Woonsocket.
The Rhode Island Police Academy gave out four class awards to the recent graduating class, Chief Ewing-Chow noted, and two of the awards went to the South Kingstown trainees.
Phannavong received the Commander Raymond J. Shannon Leadership Award and Pina was given the Officer Richard J. Jean-Georges Memorial Physical Fitness Award.
For these young officers, though, awards are nice to have, but starting a job in a career they want is as important.
“I feel like I’m supposed to be here. It’s a friendly atmosphere. I saw it as I drove around the town,” said Phannavong.
South Kingstown Police Department was the first agency to which Pina sent an application.
“It feels warm and welcoming,” he said, noting the encouragement from department senior officer Capt. Mark Healy and Officer Mike Chappell who is in charge of training.
Chappell said that their backgrounds can bring a unique moment to a scene of confusion or difficulty when police are called.
“They are from non-nuclear families. It has made them more empathetic, I think. When they get to the scene and someone says, “You don’t understand,’ they can say, ‘I do. I’ve gone through it.’”