WOONSOCKET – Despite the crimp in city budgets, the Woonsocket Police Department has found a way to bring beat cops back to Main Street, at least on a limited basis.
The city allocated a sliver of its $2.1 million Community Development Block Grant – just $10,000 – to fund the department’s “Feet on the Beat” program.
“We’re still looking for ways to expand the program, but we think this is enough for us to have one officer walk the Main Street beat one night a week for a year,” said Police Chief Thomas S. Carey.
Although the police run regular bicycle patrols on the Blackstone River Bikeway and in other parks, there hasn’t been a downtown foot patrol for at least five years.
Carey says there is strong support for a beat cop on Main Street, particularly among merchants and other concerns who are drawing visitors to entertainment and restaurant venues on the weekend.
“People feel safe when they see the police around,” he says.
The Police Department has been hard pressed to free up resources for police officers to walk a beat, however. With manpower shaved from 101 officers just a few years ago to fewer than 90, police on regular shifts are universally deployed in cruisers, so they can respond to calls as quickly as possible.
The beat cop will always be a police officer who wants to work an extra shift for overtime, said Carey. Overtime is what the grant pays for.
Carey expects the walking beat to be a highly sought-after assignment, and not just for the extra dough.
“Sometimes the only contact a police officer is going to have is going to a call,” he says. “Sometimes the only interaction they have with the public is, ‘What happened?’ This could be a little more upbeat and personable. It gives the community the opportunity to see police officers in a different light and helps build positive relationships with people in the community.
“This is what community policing is all about,” says Carey.
For now, says Carey, it looks like the beat shift will be Friday night, when the Stadium Theatre and the local restaurants typically draw the most traffic.
But Carey said the schedule isn’t cast in stone. He said the Police Department will make it a point to keep abreast of entertainment listings and other special events going on to make sure the beat cop is deployed when he or she can be most useful and visible.
Whoever is assigned to the shift will be in uniform and carry the standard equipment of a cruiser cop, including a sidearm, a canister of pepper spray, and a telescopic baton.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said restoration of the beat cop is just another example of how the city is trying to maintain some of its most popular services even when resources have been stretched to the limit.
“It’s just one more way we’re trying to find different avenues to keep some of these programs going,” said Fontaine. “People have always enjoyed seeing police on the beat, and I think the police are going to enjoy it as well.”
The city, which is operating with a structural deficit of some $10 million, has been under the control of a state-appointed Budget Commission since May 2012. The panel recently approved a five-year plan that includes hefty new taxes, departmental consolidations and cuts in worker benefits to prevent the city from lapsing into insolvency.
The police department tapped the CDBG grant to run foot patrols for the first time during the Main Street Block Party last month, according to Carey.
A number of officers were also on bike patrol, another program subsidized by a grant – the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which is a state program.
Nearly every police department in the state gets a share, based on population and the size of its police department.