Inside Town Government

The Police Department

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

This is the eighth in a series of articles describing the inner workings of the Town of Smithfield’s various offices and departments.

Whether it is concern over traffic speeding through your neighborhood, the wild bear that has been sighted in town, suspicious activity on your street, or any other matter concerning public safety, law enforcement, or citizen well-being, the Smithfield Police Department (SPD) has your back. It’s also pretty certain that they have your front and both sides as well.

Re-settled into the newly expanded and refurbished headquarters at 215 Pleasant View Avenue which was dedicated a year ago in September, the force boasts a hard to earn “Gold Standard” accreditation rating with the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) attained in 2016. It is also accredited through the Rhode Island Police Accreditation Commission (RIPAC). They have been accredited continuously since 2001.

An incredible amount of growth and change has occurred since the department was first formed in 1950 with a chief, a deputy, and a sergeant, one patrol car, and a cramped three room office in Town Hall.

Newly appointed on July 1, Deputy Chief Eric Dolan recently sat down with The Smithfield Times to provide an overview of today’s department. He replaced Robert W. VanNieuwenhuyze who had just retired.

Dolan, a 23 year veteran of the force, points out that Richard P. St. Sauveur, Jr., who has been Police Chief since May 17, 2010, commands a unit of 42 sworn officers and 19 civilian employees that are organized into administrative, uniform, detective, record, and computer divisions. The department has 28 vehicles, which will soon include four new Ford Fusions lately approved by the Town Council at a cost of $79,712. The department also has a marine patrol boat, and an off-road patrol vehicle.

The recommended Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 police budget, which was approved by voters at the financial town Meeting in June, is $9,298,220. A separate capital improvement budget of $167,827 covers vehicles, excavation and construction of a firearms facility, and it funds payments on leased vehicles. It falls under Municipal Capital Improvements in the town-wide budget report.

Also, the Police Department administers the Animal Control Division which has two employees and operates the animal shelter. It has a separate FY 2019 budget of $194,679.

These days the pride of SPD is the modernized and much-expanded headquarters building. Dolan, who was the captain in charge of administration before being promoted to deputy chief, oversaw the renovation of the 1972 era station.

“That was a full-time job,” the new deputy chief declares, referring to the makeover.

What essentially amounts to a new facility, the revamped structure was funded by a $6.2 million bond issue. However, Dolan explains with pride that “the job came in well under budget” with the final cost being approximately $5 million.

“We created for the future,” he commented. “[The building] is more accessible for the public, it provides more technological ability, and we doubled the space.” The size increase means that the station now has some 15,000 square feet. “Everything but one bathroom in the old building was gutted and replaced,” he observes.

One feature of the remodeled station that evokes special enthusiasm among the force and the public is a large community room which offers state of the art media capability, including a smart video unit that can provide inter-active visual and audio communication from remote locations. It also has a smart podium and nine data ports around the room.

The department uses it for training events, department meetings, webinars and the like. It is also available to the public. There is a request form available on the department’s page on the town website. “The room certainly gets used,” Dolan says.

The 900 square foot space is dedicated to the memory of Norman G. Vezina, a member of the department who died in the line of duty 50 years ago. A tribute to him on the department web page reads in part: “On a freezing cold day [the 10th] in December of 1968, Smithfield Patrolman Norman G. Vezina gave his life in the line of duty while attempting to rescue five year-old Kenneth Firby who had fallen through the ice and into the frigid water of the Spragueville Reservoir. Patrolman Vezina had arrived on the scene before the firefighters and rescue squad and, without hesitation, plunged into the icy water and reached the boy. Patrolman Vezina struggled to lift the boy above water, town firefighters tried unsuccessfully several times to throw a rescue rope within his reach. Tragically, both Patrolman Vezina and Kenneth Firby disappeared beneath the surface of the ice before the firefighters could reach them.” Vezina, who had been on the force only eight months, was posthumously promoted to sergeant.

Capital Improvements

According to the town website: “The Department has also embarked on an aggressive Capital Improvement Program to improve equipment and facilities. Improvements include: the construction of a free-standing police maintenance garage in the rear parking lot, replacement of existing firearms, establishment of Computer Network Administrator’s position, acquisition of a marine patrol boat, off-road patrol vehicle and breathalyzer machine through grant funds, repaving, lining, fencing and illuminating the rear parking lot, installation of a new generator, electrical system and telephone system, and revamping the HVAC system.”

Dolan notes that all of the cruisers are equipped with mobile data terminals which are essentially in-car computers. They allow officers to check information immediately during traffic stops or investigations and determine whether cars are properly registered, motorists have outstanding warrants, and the like. Officers can do reports right from their car.

“When I first got hired here there was not one computer in the building,” he comments with a chuckle. Yet, despite the advanced capability SPD has today, the number one priority in the department nevertheless is “catching up with technology,” says Dolan.

“We still very much use paper,” he adds, and points out the importance of closing the gap.

As a suburban agency where crime is less a problem than in a city environment the SPD is devoted to community policing. The department’s main concern on a daily basis is traffic enforcement, Dolan points out. For instance, during FY 2016-17 they investigated 1017 motor vehicle collisions, issued 3,811 citations, and made 93 DWI arrests.

The deputy chief says that a lot of information is provided by citizens, and he encourages residents to contact the department about problem areas or situations. Often based on such input the SPD will set up temporary traffic posts to monitor reported trouble spots.

Further emphasizing the involvement of the police in the community, the deputy chief enumerates some of the programs that are part of the department’s regular offerings. The D.A.R.E. program is still going strong, and there is a school resource officer. In addition, there are the Police Explorer Cadet Program, the Citizens Police Academy, and a female self-defense course, as well as a school self-defense course offered to all genders.

“We are in a good place right now,” Dolan asserts.

To contact the SPD in an emergency call 401-231-2500. For detailed information on any aspect of the SPD visit on-line and click on departments and then click the highlighted line for police department. An extensive amount of information is available there.