Colonel Stephen McCartney, who has been Warwick’s Police Chief since 1999, spoke at CCRI’s second annual Law Day Wednesday morning about how his police department – and other policemen across the country – are adapting in today’s age of community policing.
The Chief offered his perspective as a Marine during the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, as well as being a Providence police officer for 25 years and Warwick’s chief for the last 19.
“There’s a trust issue between police and constituents right now,” he told about 100 CCRI students Wednesday morning. “We as police officers have to continuously work on this by establishing a dialogue with them.”
McCartney said he first learned how important communication is in law enforcement during his first tour in Vietnam, when he was assigned to oversee areas with high native populations and had to try to make peace between the U.S. troops and the Vietnamese people. He later traveled with the Marines to Rwanda during the genocide in the 1990s, he said, which bolstered how important he thinks communication is.
“I wish I could speak 10 languages,” he said.
He said that in his early years as a police officer, he had to deal with issues in the projects of South Providence, and he made sure to sit down with the tenants to establish a relationship before dealing with any crime issues.
He said that communication is key in today’s day and age more than ever because police departments, especially in Warwick, have become “community policing” units that have to deal with things that may not even involve police work, such as property line disputes.
“Things that were presented to us in the 1970s like that, we would have said ‘not my problem. I’m here to fight crime,” McCartney said, adding that his police officers are now sent to mediation school to ready them to deal with community issues like that.
“What really matters to people is quality of life,” he told the students.
He also said that in many places around the country, especially in cities, when and how to engage with violent subjects has become a bigger issue.
“Use of force is a huge issue right now, it’s a raging debate in law enforcement,” he said.
“I’m a police chief who feels, philosophically speaking, it’s very difficult for us to retreat in those situations,” he said, referring to a practice done in the United Kingdom to retreat when someone comes at an officer with a danger weapon. “I think we need to continue to be armed, but continue to work on decision making as to how we use our arms.”
The Colonel said that Warwick police officers meet with their insurance trust every year to go over liability issues in violent situations.
He also said that they have a virtual reality training program where officers deal with a variety of those situations, and the department also has a “shoot house” set up to conduct those trainings. He said they deal mostly with deciding whether or not to shoot someone or not, or to use a taser instead.
Mental health is another challenge that has been presented to police officers over the time he’s spent working, McCartney said. He said that in the 1990s, there were times when police used deadly force on people that were mentally impaired, and those situations could have been avoided if the police officers were trained better.
He said that there is a 10-person mental health unit in Warwick right now who specialize in mental illnesses’ relation with policing, with an additional mental health liaison who works full-time in the department.
He tied mental health to the opioid crisis that police also face, saying that the mental health unit has paired with the drugs unit in trying to best combat the epidemic.
“People are dying because of the drugs that are other there today,” he said. “This is what we’re trying to deal with. It took a little while but I think we’re headed in the right direction, but challenges still remain.”
“We’re trying to become silver-tongued devils,” McCartney said in conclusion, expressing that policeman need to do their job but at the same time avoid unnecessarily escalating situations and creating an environment that doesn’t lead to deadly force.