For law enforcement, crisis requires change in approach


Calls for service have “dropped dramatically” as a result of social distancing, Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael Winquist said Monday – “probably by about two-thirds on any given day.”

Warwick Police Chief Col. Rick Rathbun said his department, too, has noticed a shift. There has been a decline in petty crimes, which makes sense given that his city has such a concentration of retail locations between the malls and Route 2. With stores close, there’s no shoplifting. And with bars and restaurants closed, there has a corresponding decline in DUI incidents.

Crime has far from disappeared, however – and the current crisis has both created new challenges for law enforcement and forced officers to alter their approach.

Given concerns over transmission of the novel coronavirus, Winquist said Cranston Police are “not being as proactive” while conducting patrols.

“We’re telling our officers to use common-sense judgment on initiating contact with the public … Unless someone is endangering the public, we’re trying to keep our distance,” he said.

Daily roll calls for Cranston Police have gone virtual, with information distributed digitally rather than through sergeants at regular meetings. To limit the risk of COVID-19 exposure within the department, the Patrol Division has adjusted its schedule, with two separate teams of officers working in three-day shifts alongside the same personnel.

While dispatchers remain essential and on duty, the department’s support staff has “entirely been sent home,” Winquist said. Those workers continue to fulfill duties remotely when possible, although many administrative duties have been adsorbed elsewhere.

Rathbun said he is looking at, but not implemented, separate shifts.

“There’s no change in duty as of yet,” he said.

The Warwick Department has taken other steps to enhance the safety of officers by reducing their face-to-face interaction with members of the public.

The department’s website,, provides an online feature to report non-emergency situations. The online report form makes it clear to call 911 or the department’s main number, 468-4200, to report anything involving a violent act that has the possibility of resulting in personal injury or any crime in progress.

The online feature further states that completing the form and a statement does not automatically generate a police report, but rather a “call for service report.”

Rathbun said reports are regularly monitored and follow up with telephone calls or the dispatching of an officer, depending on the nature of the report. He said the department has received and responded to reports of people gathering, whether waiting in line to access a store or in groups in city parks. There have been no arrests concerning gatherings, he said.

Other measures taken by the Warwick department to “protect the health and well-being of our communities and to mitigate exposure,” according to its website, include the direction that the public not respond to the police station for any non-emergency business; the suspension of BCI fingerprinting/VIN checks and car seat installations; and closure of the prescription drop box in the station lobby.

Rathbun would not disclose whether any Warwick Police personnel have tested positive for COVID-19 or if any have self-quarantined. He said the health of department personnel is monitored before each shift.

Some Cranston officers have gone into self-quarantine since the start of the crisis locally, Winquist said, including three who serve as school resource officers at Cranston High School West and were part of the quarantine order for that school’s community following a student’s positive test for the virus on March 13. One officer self-quarantined after out-of-state travel, and others did so due to “personal situations” not related to their duties.

“Knock on wood, we have not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19,” the chief said, adding that the department will be acquiring non-contact thermometers for health monitoring purposes.

Winquist said officers have all been issued personal protective equipment – including N95 masks, gloves, eye protection, even gowns – for calls that require immediate response and involve potential close-contact situations. He said the department is “doing pretty well” in terms of its PPE stock thanks to donations, and additional supplies are on order through the state’s Emergency Management Agency.

“We’re pretty well equipped,” he said.

As Warwick Police have done, the Cranston department has asked members of the public to take advantage of online remote options for non-emergency situations.

Winquist said a dispatcher who receives a call regarding a vandalism or similar incident – a situation that is not “life or death” – will direct the caller to utilize the online report filing system the department’s website, Reports can also be taken over the phone.

Winquist said the department has seen a “huge spike” in online reports – from one or two each week before the current crisis to 15 or 20 a week now.

“We’re really promoting that as much as we can … We’re hoping that more people will utilize,” he said.

Like Rathun, Winquist said his department has been particularly active of late in enforcing local and statewide executive orders concerning social distancing. While no violations or arrests have yet resulted – and while reports of violators have tapered off in recent days – he said police are remaining vigilant, especially as the weather warms.

“A lot of our time is spent making sure that the mayor and governor’s executive orders are being adhered to,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to enforce … I think generally by now, people are complying.”

He added, however: “The longer this goes on, we know people are going to get restless.”


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