WOONSOCKET -- Proactive community service and attention to public safety was the order of the day when members of the St. James Baptist Church on South Main Street opened this year's celebration of the life of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The annual celebration in the past has included marches to honor the public demonstrations King led in the 1950s and 1960 to help end the segregation of African Americans in the south and achieve civil rights for all. There have also been readings by young people and musical programs highlighting King's work.
This year the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration organizers opted to kick off the scheduled observances with a Public Safety Awareness Forum in the church hall that included presentations by local and state law enforcement officials.
Members of the Woonsocket Police Department attended to detail the role of local police in the community and State Police Col. Brendan Doherty and A.T. Wall, director of the state Department of Corrections were also on hand to give overviews on their agencies.
Emma Dandy, co-chair of the event with Carol Wilson-Allen, said the idea of the forum was to foster the spirit of cooperation between all groups that had been a key theme in Dr. King's work. A nine-member committee that included Shirley Robinson, the evening's master of ceremonies, made the arrangements for all the public officials to participate, she noted.
"I want to keep his dream alive and bring that spirit of cooperation to the whole community," Dandy said.
By bringing people face to face, the forum would foster a sense of understanding between people that will help avert problems in the future, she said. "We are all here to stay and we are not going anywhere," Dandy said. "We all have to be able to live together and be happy together," she said.
During his remarks, Police Chief Thomas S. Carey outlined the department's need for help from the community in solving crimes and reporting suspicious activity through the department's Website,www.woonsocketpolice.com, and police tipline, 769-4444. He also assurred the gathering police are committed to keeping local residents safe in their neighborhoods.
The police department does sometimes get complaints from the public over the manner in which officers handle something as routine as a traffic stop, Carey noted. But while department members may seem aloof in such circumstances, Carey said they are actually following patrol safety procedures intended to ensure the safety of the officer and the motorist.
"There is a lot of anxiety and it is one of the most difficult tasks you have to perform," Carey said. There have been tragic incidents where officers have lost their lives while conducting a stop for a simple traffic violation and unknowningly came up against someone who was armed with a handgun, he said.
The protocols establish the safest positions for officers to approach a vehicle and communicate with the occupants and also how motor vehicle computer checks should be conducted and any citations that are found to be written up and issued, he said.
"I just want you to understand the mechanics of what happens when a police officer makes a traffic stop," he said. The officer, Carey said, "is going to be very conscious of safety," he said. "All we are trying to do is do a traffic stop the way we were trained to do a traffic stop so we can get back safely to our families at night," he said.
Patrolman David Chattman, an 18-year-veteran of the department, said public cooperation can go a long way in helping local officers do their job when it comes to routine police matters. When a group of juveniles is congregating afterschool or near where a fight may have occurred, Chattman said police need them to follow their instructions. "If we ask them to leave and move along, we want them to move," he said. Contrary to what some people might think, Chattman said his fellow officers have a good appreciation of the job they are expected to do for the public and also do that job with respect for the public. "I love my job and the guys I work with," Chattman said. "They are my bros and we do our job out there," he said.
Det. Alan Leclaire gave the group and overview on his role as a juvenile detective and the work the department does to reduce gang activity in the city. "Don't let there be any misconceptions out there, we do have gangs in the city," Leclaire said. But unlike larger cities, gang activity in Woonsocket tends to be a more homegrown variety involving local juveniles and a few adults, he said. The activity monitored by the local department does not typically have connections to organized gangs outside the city, he said.
That doesn't mean that the gang activity that does exisit here is something to ignore and Leclaire said local officers do keep tabs on people identified as being involved in gangs. "It's just a bunch of kids, but kids can still cause problems," he said.
The department also is working to stay on top of the newer crimes such as cyber bullying and internet fraud and hopes to see new legislation giving police better tools to address such crimes in the current session of the General Assembly, he said. State Sen. John Tassoni is currently working on a bill to that end, and other local officials such as Rep. Robert Phillips, attending the forum along with City Councilman John F. Ward and School Committeewoman Vimala Phongsavanh, could help in that effort, he noted.
"The General Assembly and the community as a whole, the school department, the police department, and community groups like this have to get involved to address this issue," he said.
Doherty noted his agency's close ties to the Woonsocket department on several recent major cases, including the tragic robbery and killing of gas station manager David Main, while commending the job it does in the city.
"I'm proud to be associated with the Woonsocket Police Department," the State Police superintendent said. While giving an overview of his department's work statewide, Doherty pointed to the problem of drunk driving as a continuing concern for the state.
Too many otherwise "good people" still drink excessively and get behind the wheel of a dangerous weapon, a motor vehicle, Doherty said. In 2009, the state had 83 motor vehicle fatalities, making it the fifth highest state in the country in that category, he said. Since that time, the State Police have stepped up drunken driving enforcement and Doherty said he believes the effort helped lower the number of fatalities last year to 63 statewide.
"We are trying to get the message out nationwide but unfortunately some people still don't get it," he said. "We still have way too many alcohol-related traffic fatalities," he said.
Doherty also told the group about his agency's efforts to mentor young people and the work a State Police-sponsored community outreach effort has been able to do with kids at Central High School in Providence.
The program for college-bound students at the school brings in professionals like college professors, lawyers and business owners to give the kids an understanding of what they must do to succeed in life, he said.
"They just talk with the kids about making good decisions and about doing the right thing," he said. Doherty said he would be willing to talk with members Carey's department on ideas to set up a similar program for kids in Woonsocket.
A.T. Wall, the director of the Department of Corrections, said he was pleased to come before the group in conjunction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because "so much of what he said was about justice."
Wall detailed his agency's responsibility for people working their way through the criminal justice system, whether awaiting trial for crimes or serving out their sentences or released on probation.
One of the Corrections Department's more surprising statistics, Wall noted, is that statewide one in every 21 Rhode Islanders falls under the agency's supervision, whether they are inside a facility or out on release.
Annually, he said, the department handles between 17,000 to 20,000 admissions to the ACI, and is responsible for the feeding, clothing and healthcare of that population while they are in state custody. For that reason the Department of Corrections is the largest state agency and also requires the largest share of state dollars, he said. As for the make-up of the state's prison population, Wall said 94 percent are males, 50 percent are caucasian, 25 percent African American, and 20 percent Latino. Southeast Asian and Native American inmates make up the balance, he said.
Of the total number of inmates in state custody, only about two dozen have been sentenced to life without parole and will never be released from prison, Wall said. But that statistic also shows that at somepoint in time the rest of the 20,000 inmates will win release from prison.
Getting those inmates reintergrated successfully into community is a challenge for both the state, the local police, and community organizations that step forward to help, according to Wall. That work costs money and time but is necessary to reduce the number of repeat offenders, according to Wall.
"You really don't want to have the consequences of them coming out the ACI unprepared to reintergrate," he said. Wall noted that 46 percent of the inmates released from the ACI are back in custody within 12 months as a result of committing new crimes or violating the terms of their release.
"We have to do a better job," Wall said while noting the need for continued cooperation between law enforcement agencies and better public understanding of the challenges in reducing an ever increasing state prison population.
Thomas Gray, a member of St. James and a local parent, asked Wall if there was a way that current inmates could help local young people understand the dangers of criminal activities.
Wall said the ACI does have the Score Program in which a panel of selected inmates work to give back with the lessons they have learned.
It is not a so called "scared straight" program, but one where the inmates try to impart what they have lost in life as a result of their crimes. "They say don't do what I have done," Wall said, and point out to their listeners that some will never have a family because of being locked up long periods of their life.
Chattman later said he thought the session was an informative one for the participants and believes forums like it should be held more often in the community. "It should be done more than just once a year so that everyone is on the same page," he said.
The Rev. Sammy C. Vaughan, senior pastor of St. James Baptist Church, said he found a lot of information was presented during the forum "and it was well received," but he too thought more people could benefit from such a session.
"This is in keeping with the all the things Martin Luther King Jr. was about," Vaughan said. "The message is that we all need to be aware that all of us are in the same boat. We are all trying to excell and be successful," Vaughan said.
Every year, people look to Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech to gauge the progress that has been made in civil rights over time, and there is a view "that we have come a long way from the time he was marching in the South," Vaughan said. "We have made a lot of progress," Vaughan said, "but there is still room for improvement."