RI National Guard trying to avoid tapping into police, fire and prison

Coronavirus
Rhode Island National Guard Command Readiness Center_542879

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state is trying to avoid depleting the ranks of police and fire departments – and the prison – after the governor activated the R.I. National Guard last week.

Gov. Gina Raimondo said on Monday she has heard from city and town leaders concerned that activating the guard could make it hard for public safety officials to properly staff their police and fire departments, where personnel often serve in the armed services.

While the governor said at news conference that first responders “will not be called up,” the reality is that the guard is assessing each person on a case-by-case basis.

The news is welcome to many communities that are also dealing with staffing issues related to the coronavirus itself. In Providence, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said on Friday 10 officers were being kept home on self-quarantine.

In Cranston, Col. Michael Winquist said he has five officers who are being told to stay home for two weeks. He said the department also has five officers that serve in the guard – all of whom are on patrol – so a deployment would impact 8% of that division.

“Losing officers due to a National Guard activation is a major concern for my department, as well as police departments (and fire departments) across the state and the country,” Winquist said in an email. “This concern was made known to the guard after a few of my officers were notified they are in standby, and [the guard] assured us they will make all efforts to exempt police officers from activation.”

Sid Wordell, the executive director of the R.I. Police Chief’s Association, said his group raised concerns with Major General Christopher Callahan of the National Guard during a conference call on Saturday. He said Callahan was receptive to their worries.

“It is case-by-case, person-by-person,” Wordell said. “When someone is called up, they make a determination as to how essential they are to the agency.”

R.I. State Police Col. James Manni said three of his personnel were activated by the guard, but the agency was able to retain two of them.

In Woonsocket, a full deployment would have a dramatic impact on the city’s ability to patrol the streets. Chief Thomas Oates said almost 20% of his 50-person patrol division are in the military. He said one person was called up by the guard last week, but after Saturday’s call, the department is getting that officer back.

Josh Block, a spokesperson for Raimondo, said the public safety assessment also applies to correctional officers at the ACI.

General Callahan “is working to ensure public safety officials — including members of law enforcement, fire, and correctional officers — are not called up at this point,” Block said in an email.

Lindsay Lague, a spokesperson for Providence Public Safety, said one city officer has been activated as part of the guard’s COVID-19 response.

“We have several members on deployment in a non-COVID capacity (deployments that were already ongoing),” Lague said in an email. “We do have other members who are in the guard who are not activated yet.”

On the fire department side, Lague said Providence has 13 firefighters who also serve in the guard; one was deployed to Poland prior to the coronavirus crisis.

At the ACI, a prison spokesperson said the department does not keep records on how many correctional officers also serve in the National Guard. But union president Richard Ferruccio estimated up to 10% of the staff have some connection to the armed services.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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