WESTERLY — The number of citations issued in the COVID summer of 2020 for alcohol violations at the town’s beaches was double that of a typical year, and a lack of compliance in June has already led to 52 tickets being issued this season.
With the growing trend becoming clear, Westerly police are taking aim at curbing violations and promoting safer habits among shoreline visitors this summer.
Police Chief Shawn Lacey said last week that the department was kicking off a periodic enhanced beach enforcement over the weekend, an effort that will be funded partially through a grant and supplemented by Westerly police. The enforcement will take place on an unannounced schedule and involve plainclothes officers patrolling the beach to identify and issue citations to violators.
“We had planned to begin on (June 12), but after weather reports showed a heat wave coming and with (the relaxing of) pandemic restrictions leading many more people to go out, we used overtime over the past week to provide added enforcement,” Lacey said. “Based on the results of our first weekend alone, we are going to continue the effort throughout the summer.”
The annual enforcement is nothing new, and over the course of the past decade, the Westerly police have traditionally combined grant-funded direct enforcement with regular patrols to help maintain order and encourage safety at the town's beaches. The enforcement includes sporadic checks, enhanced holiday coverage and targeted efforts if the department begins receiving complaints.
Lacey said these efforts traditionally net anywhere from 100 to 200 alcohol violations between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic left many seeking outdoor options during the summer even more than before, the agency issued a record 437 tickets for either consumption of an alcoholic beverage in public or possession of an alcoholic beverage by an underage person.
Consumption of alcohol in public is an infraction that carries a minimum fine of $100, and violators are issued a summons to Westerly Municipal Court. Minors in possession of alcohol, ages 18 to 21, are referred to Fourth Division District Court, and violators face a minimum penalty of a $200 court-ordered contribution to a charitable organization, 20 hours of community service, and a 60-day loss of their driver's license. Cases involving those under 18 are referred to Rhode Island Family Court.
“The goal of the enforcement is not to issue tickets necessarily. We would love nothing more than to find there is no reason for us to be there and to be able to focus our efforts elsewhere,” Lacey said. “What we are seeking is compliance with the law, which is there for everyone’s safety.”
That hasn’t been the case so far there this year.
During the first weekend of June, separate patrols along the 9 miles of Westerly beaches, officers issued 24 tickets to those who were found to be consuming alcohol in public. The citations were issued to two Cranston residents, as well as visitors from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Iowa.
The department had hoped to wait to resume enforcement until it was planned to begin on Saturday, but officers were reassigned after the agency received multiple complaints last Monday about the activity.
As a result, enforcement between Tuesday and Thursday netted an additional 28 violations from visitors representing five states, with 20 people charged with consuming alcohol in public and 8 others facing charges of possession of alcohol by a minor. None of those charged as minors were under the age of 18.
Lacey said that with the town making additional adjustments to expand access to an alcohol-allowed zone in front of local bars, there is even less excuse this year for the violations to be taking place.
“There is a special zone dedicated to providing a space for those who want to drink,” Lacey said. “That’s where the drinking should be done.”