WOONSOCKET – The gray stucco house where the police found the battered body of a slain prostitute this week was more than just a crime scene.
It was a proving ground for the Woonsocket Police Department’s relatively inexperienced detective squad, more than half of whom had never investigated a homicide before.
“They want to show you just what kind of a police officer they’re capable of being,” says Police Chief Tom Carey. “They know a murder is the biggest type of investigation they’re ever going to be involved in.”
Like so many facets of municipal government these days, the new demographics of the WPD are tied to the city’s continuing fiscal uncertainty.
Since 2008, amid the first signs of pension and benefit rollbacks to come, more than 50 veterans of the police force have tendered their resignations in attempts to protect their retirement packages.
The exodus has created a personnel atmosphere at the police station where new recruits are pouring into the station to replace the retirees and workers who stay behind are rising through the ranks at lightning-quick speed. In the pre-pension reform days, it might have taken a rookie a decade just to get off the graveyard shift and move to a more family-friendly day job, but some of the newcomers have been able to do it in a year or so.
Meanwhile, says Carey, the on-the-job time of the average Woonsocket police officer has dropped from 15 years to five since the wave of retirements began.
A transplant from the big-city police force of St. Petersburg, Fla., where he worked for nearly three decades before becoming Woonsocket’s chief over four years ago, Carey says he sometimes worries that the combination of inexperience and police work will result in some type of visibly poor performance or mistakes. But during the last couple of weeks, he says his officers have given him every reason to sing their praises.
Since March 28, the police have solved two home invasion robberies in cooperation with the Burrillville police; a shooting on the Fairmount Street Bridge in which a man was gravely wounded; and the murder of 57-year-old Donna Pike in her Rathbun Street apartment.
“I’m really proud of the work they’ve done and it just goes to show we have some really great police officers working here,” he says. “These crimes don’t happen on a 9-to-5 schedule and a lot of these police officers make great sacrifices to do the job that they do. A lot of the time that sacrifice comes at the expense of their families.”
Detective Commander Edward J. Lee Jr. says keeping up with high turnover rate has resulted in some daunting challenges throughout the police department, especially in jobs that require specialized training. One of the divisions most affected is the Bureau of Criminal Identification, where personnel must have certain credentials in handling evidence in order for their work to stand up in court.
The department invariably turns to short-term “career development schools” to make sure trainees are handling new skills with the necessary level of professional deft.
Lee also says Carey has forged stronger alliances with the attorney general’s office and other law enforcement agencies since coming on board. It is now routine for the department to partner up with outside agencies on major investigations from the get-go.
The murder of Pike, says Lee, is a perfect example. State Prosecutor Alison DeCosta was on the scene of the crime from the very beginning. The local police also teamed up with the computer crimes unit of the state police and the Rhode Island Fusion Center, a multi-agency task force, to help solve the crime.
Within hours of the discovery of the body investigators home in on a suspect using techniques Lee describes as “very high tech.” Lee wouldn’t say how quickly police identified the suspect, except that, “It was quick.” The suspect, Brian Audette, 43, an ex-con from Warwick with a long criminal past, was in custody within 48 hours of the discovery of Pike’s body. He’s now charged with first-degree murder.
Pike, who had moved to Woonsocket from Providence within the last few weeks, died from blunt force trauma to the face and head. Though police have not disclosed Audette’s motive or his relationship with the victim, court records show Pike had been repeatedly convicted of loitering for prostitution in Providence.
She was the city’s first homicide victim since the fatal robbery of gas station manager David Main outside Citizens Bank in September 2010. The alleged triggerman in the shooting death, Jason Wayne Pleau, 35, one of three individuals arrested in the case, is facing a possible death penalty in federal courts.
Beyond the issue of inexperience, the WPD has another personnel hurdle that will continue to pose challenges for solving major crimes for the foreseeable future: the sheer dearth of manpower.
For years the Woonsocket police was a force of 101 sworn officers, and it still is – at least on paper. With a federal COPS grant that was part of President Obama’s federal stimulus package, the force was beefed up to 105-member department through November.
Despite increasing calls for police service, budget constraints have led to the elimination of 15 positions, according to Carey. Combined with police officers who are on family leave, sidelined by injuries or otherwise unavailable, the department has fewer than 90 officers on the street, including some 30 plainclothes and undercover detectives.
The Budget Commission, which has developed a five-year plan to stave off municipal bankruptcy, has refused to allow the police department to fill any of the vacancies for the time being.
Carey says the department is getting by, but manpower could erode even more if another wave of retirements crashes on the police force. Thirteen department veterans are already retirement-eligible, according to Carey.
If all left at once, Carey said it could take years to replace them because of the time it takes to get new recruits seated in the Rhode Island Police Training Academy. Such a loss would undoubtedly put a strain on the department’s resources, he says.
“Criminals aren’t worried about the police department’s overtime budget,” says Carey. “They just do what they do when they’re going to do it.”