WESTERLY — People in the community give police an advantage in fighting crime, Chief of Police Shawn Lacey told members of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce during a luncheon Friday at Ella's Fine Food & Drink.
"Most of the cases we solve is because of people like you. We don't have any special senses," Lacey said.
Lacey, who became chief on a full-time basis in December, gave an overview of his career and the department he has worked for since 1988. He also touched on the town's police retirement law, which he fought against for about two years before being named chief.
The law requires the department's officers to retire after 30 years on the job. When Lacey hit the 30-year mark he filed a lawsuit against the town, arguing that the law was a form of age discrimination. A judge issued a temporary injunction preventing the town from ending Lacey's employment, and he was appointed chief before a trial could be conducted. He has since withdrawn the lawsuit. He said he has stuck around for a reason.
"I still enjoy doing what I'm doing. I enjoy going to work and I enjoy working with the people in this community, helping the people and making the community feel safe, providing public safety to the citizens within this community. It's the type of job, if you didn't like it or were burned out from it, you would certainly leave and retire," Lacey said.
Lacey recommended revocation of the retirement law, saying it would save the town money by postponing pension payments for retired officers.
The veteran officer's roots in the town are deep. He attended local schools, and married his high school sweetheart, Darlene. They raised their three daughters here. Members of the audience recalled playing youth sports with Lacey and other connections with him and his family.
Lacey encouraged business owners to contact him with questions or concerns. "We're willing to work with you," he said, adding that he tries to return all calls on the day he receives them.
In addition to working with businesses, Lacey said he focuses on getting out to local events to meet people. "I have to do that ... the only way we're going to succeed as a police department is through developing relationships in the community. Ninety-nine percent of policing is community policing," Lacey said.
Town Councilor Suzanne Giorno praised and thanked Lacey for his work. "I'm impressed by your community relations. Chief Lacey is at every event and meeting," said Giorno, whose father was a police chief in New York state.
The department like others in the state and throughout the country, Lacey said, is dealing with the challenges posed by changing marijuana laws. While approved patients can possess and use marijuana for medicinal purposes, and growing marijuana for those purposes is allowed under state law, possession of the drug continues to be a federal offense.
Lacey recalled a recent case in which officers seized a large quantity of marijuana that was being transported from one medical marijuana grow site in the town to another. The case, he said, points to some of the problems: While growing the product is allowed, transporting it is not. "It's a mess for us from an enforcement perspective," he said.
Possession of marijuana was a felony when Lacey started his career but Rhode Island law now classifies it, depending on the amount, as an infraction similar to a speeding ticket — even though the drug's potency has increased, Lacey noted. "It's 15 times stronger today, in THC content, then it was just 15 years ago," Lacey said. THC is an abbreviation for tetrahydrocannabinol, a compound that is the main psychoactive ingredient.
Lacey estimated that marijuana is hundreds of times stronger now than it was decades ago. In his experience as a police officer, Lacey said he has often observed marijuana and alcohol functioning as gateway drugs to harder substances, including heroin. The drug also poses a challenge for law enforcement officials because younger officers grew up in a culture and environment that was more permissive of marijuana use, Lacey said.