PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The scene in and around the Rhode Island State House on Sunday morning looked more like a military compound than the usual quiet of Smith Hill.
Humvees driven by members of the R.I. National Guard lumbered around the building, as state troopers in tactical gear and soldiers with “Military Police” emblazoned on flak jackets roamed the grounds.
And somewhere out of sight, specially trained state troopers waited silently on standby, ready to respond to trouble at a moment’s notice.
R.I. State Police Col. James Manni doesn’t want to say exactly how many troopers and R.I. National Guard members are stationed in an around the State House. But their highly visible presence was by design.
“This is a deterrent to anyone that thinks they are going to come to the State House or the Providence area – or anywhere in the state of Rhode Island – and cause some type of disruption,” Manni said.
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In an exclusive interview with Target 12 Sunday morning, Manni stressed multiple times that there is no credible local threat that violent protestors are planning to descend on Smith Hill, but said he wanted to be ready to prevent anything like the chaos that erupted in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
“January 6 was a game-changer for the entire country,” Manni said. “We are fully prepared to address anything that could come our way if it ever does materialize – whether it’s a large or small group.”
“We’re safe and we will continue to keep this state safe,” he added.
On Sunday morning, military Humvees could be seen arriving at the State House, along with armed military police and state troopers, adding to the 24/7 security Manni put in place last week. Similar scenes were occurring at capitols across the country as law enforcement leaders braced for possible protests – or worse – that could spark as soon as Sunday.
Inside the State House, Capitol Police officers and members of the National Guard roamed the halls. Manni stopped to thank each one as he toured the facility.
“Most of them were ordered back to work today,” he said. “I am just thanking them for their service for the state of Rhode Island.”
The State House has already been closed to the public for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but elected officials and their staffers have continued to be in the building regularly.
Moments before his interview with Target 12, Manni said he received a call from Gov. Gina Raimondo, who wanted the latest threat assessment and the scene at the State House.
Raimondo is preparing to leave the state as President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. commerce secretary, so Manni said he has also been providing daily updates to Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, as well as legislative leaders.
“For the first time since I have been superintendent, I briefed the speaker and the Senate president on operations here at the State House,” Manni said. “There is a lot of anxiety with members of the General Assembly.”
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said last week the General Assembly would not be in session on Wednesday, the day of Biden’s inauguration. (The Senate is currently only meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays.)
“We have full confidence in Col. Manni and his team of public safety officials, including the State Police, the Capitol Police, and the sheriffs,” Shekarchi and Ruggerio said in a joint statement Sunday.
“However, out of abundance of caution, we will allow legislative employees to have the option of working from home this Wednesday,” they continued. “We are in constant communication with Col. Manni and his team and will make appropriate changes if necessary.”
Both chambers are already meeting offsite due to the pandemic, with the House in the shadow of the State House at the nearby Veterans Memorial Auditorium, while the Senate meets at Rhode Island College. Manni said the state police will be providing additional security at both locations when lawmakers are in session.
Following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters, social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook froze the president’s social media account and purged their platforms of those promoting violence. The action may have had a chilling effect on some groups’ ability to organize, but it also cut into a major source of information for law enforcement to monitor for suspicious activity.
Manni declined to say if that is the case with his investigators, but said he talks “numerous times a day” with federal agencies about any intelligence they have gathered.
“I will say that we have tremendous tools at the federal level and state level that can assist in determining the threat level in the state of Rhode Island,” he said.
Manni added that the heavy presence at the State House will remain in place for days, “through the inauguration.”
“As long as there is threat potential in the United States,” he said.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.