200416ind Police

Narragansett Patrolman James Fitzgerald walks the aisles of The Dollar Tree to take a head count of customers in the Narragansett store on April 11 while checking that local businesses were complying with the coronavirus restrictions by limiting the number of customers to 20% of the building’s fire capacity.

Self-quarantining, restrictive stay-at-home orders and police distancing — all new behaviors needed to fight the Coronavirus — wrought a nearly 60 percent average reduction in arrests in the last month in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown.

The figure was compiled from data The Independent collected and analyzed this week. Each town shows significant recent drops — following a national trend — when comparing three weeks of arrests from March to early April this year to last year.

“It’s not a municipal or state issue, but a national issue,” explained Colonel James M. Manni, superintendent and director of public safety for the Rhode Island State Police and long-time South Kingstown resident.

Many factors are influencing the reduction, said Manni and other law enforcement officials. Fewer drivers and vehicles are one of the major causes.

Others include more people staying home and those also staying out of trouble, especially avoiding criminal mischief as well as drinking and driving after visiting a restaurant or bar, which now are also closed, said Manni and other local chiefs of police.

In addition, police are not proactively doing traffic enforcement details and they are setting priorities for investigating crimes and taking other actions that put officers immediately at risk of infection from the virus, officials said.

According to the Washington, D.C-based Police Executive Research Forum, a policy organization that studies police matters, decreases in crime as well as self-protection, different public safety approaches needed by police and unique local circumstances are contributing at present to falling arrest numbers nationwide.

Local law enforcement officials agree with that assessment.

“The significant drop this past month can be attributed to less vehicles out on the roadway,” said South Kingstown Police Capt. Ewing Chow. He pointed out the University of Rhode Island is closed as well as schools, parks, beaches and people are working from home. 

Chief Sean Corrigan in Narragansett offered a similar assessment, especially pertaining to the university students who have mostly left the area or are not traveling much.

“The majority of the student renters did not return after URI canceled on-campus classes. The students that did return have not been very active so we are not responding to house parties and making those associated arrests (for) liquor law violations, public nuisance, etc.,” he said.

“Historically, this is a very busy time frame for us with the student renters. Annually, we (also) run a special enforcement operation to prevent problems,” the chief added.

In North Kingstown, Chief Patrick Flanagan agreed that people following stay-at-home directions has reduced the various circumstances for police investigations and crime.

“Really the only issue we’ve had are with the teenagers on a nice day because they are home they want to go to play basketball,” he said,

“If they’re playing a pick-up game, we tell them they have to separate because of the social distancing. Sometimes they question you ‘Why?’, and that’s like, ‘Have you seen the news?’ That’s about the only time we’ve seen any issues,” he said.


Changes to Policing

In addition, State Police Col. Manni observed that enforcement, in the age of the coronavirus and social distancing, has turned from proactive – motor vehicles enforcement details — to a focused reactive approach that sets priorities leading to ways to handle various incidents.

 “We are prioritizing the calls for service,” he said. “So, we are concentrating on the enforcement of the most serious of crimes and incidents. We still respond anywhere we are needed, but we are prioritizing the calls to minimize the exposure of the troopers to potential infection.”

He likened the situation to a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. Police need to go where they are needed most and, in this instance of the virus, so that potential for infection is reduced, he said.

Narragansett’s Chief Corrigan observed, “I would say this public health crisis has changed nearly everything about policing.”

He illustrated these many changes by pointing to those in Narragansett Police work. Many mirror actions other departments have taken.

For example, Corrigan said, as many calls as possible are handled remotely by email or phone. The cruiser’s loudspeaker system is used more often so officers don’t need to leave vehicles.

When police respond in person to a home, they call people outside to speak to them. If they must go inside, they try to leave a door open to vent the residence and wear personal protective equipment and follow social distancing, he explained.

“Some traffic enforcement is still needed to maintain traffic safety,” Corrigan said. “However, we do not handle documents and the operators are advised that the citation will be mailed to them.”

They are continuing to enforce Gov. Gina Raimondo’s orders for 14-day self-quarantines for people coming from out of state. They do it by phone when possible, he added.

“When we have to go to the residence, we keep our distance, wear personal protective equipment or leave a copy of the order in their mailbox or under their vehicle’s window wiper,” he said.

They proactively do spot checks on businesses to make sure the governor’s closing orders are being followed, he noted.

“We are actively monitoring places where people tend to congregate for the same reason. Our day log is now full of such activity,” he said about that particular part of the job at the heart of nationwide orders for social distancing.

The department has also needed to change many everyday usual steps in running the agency, he said.

He said the department staggers shifts to reduce the number of officers coming in at one time for shift change. It conducts roll call over the phone or through the mobile data terminals in the cruisers.

Command staff meetings and all of the other varied meetings are done through teleconferencing.

“We have drastically limited foot traffic in the station. All our non-essential personnel are working from home.  We have a strict schedule of enhanced environmental cleaning,” he said.

The department takes any police cruiser used to transport a citizen out of service until it is disinfected and cell block and processing areas are also disinfected after any custodial arrest, he said.

The department is also screening every employee at the beginning of every shift by taking temperatures and asking health screening questions. Citizens with whom they have direct contact are also asked screening questions, Corrigan said.

In North Kingstown, Chief Flanagan said he’s also taking similar measures, including complaints over the phone. The complaint is assigned to an officer who calls the person back and gets the information for the report.

He also said that his officers are wearing masks for calls and personal protective equipment when arresting someone and during any arrest hearings.

Both he and Chief Joseph P. Geaber, Jr. of South Kingstown said their departments, too, are following a reactive — rather than proactive — approach as Manni described.

“We have limited contact with the public by installing a new intercom system for dispatch and a large drop box for paperwork in our outside lobby,” Geaber said.

“We have equipped all officers with personal protective equipment to the extent that we can due to a limited supply,” he added.

In addition, he said, priorities are reviewed, but police respond - as do other local and state police departments - to any request for help.

The chiefs also have said they have blocked most beach access and other favorite areas for citizens to congregate.


Eye on domestic violence

South County law enforcement officials said they have not seen an any increases in reports of domestic violence.

State Police Superintendent Manni, who also oversees the state’s 911 emergency system, said domestic violence calls statewide have increased slightly.

“People are together in close quarters, they get on each other’s nerves, there’s stress, anxiety, job loss, fear, money concerns, increase in alcohol. You can see that this is the perfect storm that is happening,” he said.

Manni said he is monitoring the situation closely and has assigned a detective who is an expert in domestic violence to analyze the data from the statistics, talk with victim advocates, and develop an outreach program for people who need assistance.

“We will be working with partners in domestic violence prevention to get out one unified prevention message, outreach, perhaps using social media,” he said, adding that this issue is also on the governor’s radar screen.

This is among the many challenges that coping with the coronavirus has thrown at police, he said. In the pandemic era, the job focuses as much on solving and preventing crimes as it does on overall public safety.

Echoing the sentiments of these other chiefs as well, he said, “Public safety is the whole encompassing umbrella of what we can do to assist. We are serving the people of the state in any way we are called upon to do.”

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