WESTERLY — Police Chief Shawn Lacey said the Westerly department would seek to follow state guidelines on social distancing, but would also enforce all laws even if it means making an arrest.
Lacey said he is concerned that if Rhode Island moves to lock down the system any further, handling prisoners could become a logistical nightmare.
“We have a responsibility to enforce public safety, and that means continuing to patrol and taking action when there is a safety concern or issue,” Lacey said. “If we do not maintain a proactive approach and hold those who would break the law accountable, we would see an increase in crime. That’s something we would like to avoid.”
He said that if the courts reject or restrict prisoners because of concerns that they are infected with the coronavirus, local police would be left with questions regarding the handling of bail, and the chain of custody.
While restrictions on court hearings have caused some confusion, Craig N. Berke, spokesman for the Rhode Island Judiciary, said last week that the courts are continuing to move forward with many criminal cases, including all serious offenses, and are not simply turning criminal cases away.
Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Paul A. Suttell issued an order this week limiting activity at each of the six district courthouses to emergency and essential matters only. All trials, grand jury proceedings and other matters have been continued until at least April 17.
When it comes to the criminal matters, Superior Court judges will continue to deal with Rule 5A bail petitions, presentation of violator cases, violation hearings with specific witnesses, and warrant cancellations. The district courts will continue to process arraignments for all capital offenses, domestic violence cases, drug and alcohol-related driving offenses, fugitive from justice cases and other crimes pertaining to violence and offenses against public safety.
“Matters involving a person’s liberty will be heard,” Berke said. “Less serious offenses must be scheduled farther out, but those are the cases that don’t usually involve lockup, much the way police enable appearances with a bail commissioner at the police station.”
Berke said the courts are also exploring ways to ramp up videoconferencing capabilities. The courts currently use videoconferencing for certain hearings involving prisoners at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston, and Berke said the judiciary is using those hearings as a model.
Officials with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections said this week that procedural changes have been implemented to limit face-to-face interactions, but that the prison system was prepared to weather the storm.
J.R. Ventura, chief of information and public relations, said the department already had plans in place for responding to a disease outbreak and had taken added precautions to limit the possible spread of the virus among the prison population. Cases of concern would be isolated, he said, but the facilities would not turn away prisoners if an intake is requested.
“We have a no refusal policy, which essentially means we would not turn anyone away,” Ventura said.
Inmates at the ACI are certainly experiencing some new restrictions. Visitation has been temporarily canceled at the prisons, which means no family visits, and lawyers have been instructed to conduct business over the phone whenever possible. Ventura said the state has also limited or canceled scheduled visits with vendors and contractors.
Programming has also been limited at the prisons to prevent widespread infection among the general population.
“Safety remains our top priority right now, and we are taking all measures possible to do our job while assuring COVID-19 is not introduced to our general populace,” Ventura said.