PROVIDENCE, RI – By CATHERINE WELCH
The Woonsocket Police department has a tarnished history. In 1982 and for the rest of the decade, the big story was Raymond "Beaver" Tempest Jr. who was convicted a decade later for beating a young woman to death with a metal pipe. His brother was a detective on the force and the public believed Woonsocket Police mishandled the investigation. A few years after Tempest was convicted, Susan Menard became the mayor of Woonsocket.
Russ Olivo is assistant editor of the Woonsocket Call, he's worked at the paper for 20 years and has followed the police department. "Under Mayor Menard, who was mayor for 15 years, there was probably a new police chief every two years," says Olivo.
He remembers in 2007 when complaints started to swirl around former police Chief Michael Houle. The chief eventually resigned along with the deputy chief in 2008 after his ex-wife claimed they fudged her scores on the police entrance exam.
There were also problems with the improper destruction of evidence, a gun was smuggled into a holding cell, and Mayor Menard dusted up controversy when the police department leased four motorcycles from her son-in-law's business. Olivo says the department was a mess.
"They were seen as being basically the mayor's proxies at the police station. And there was a lot of internal turmoil," he says.
Reverend Sammy Vaughn is the Woonsocket Police Department's Chaplin. "You know law enforcement is here to protect you, but in the past we didn't know if people were protecting us or beating us up," says Vaughn.
He says before Chief Thomas Carey arrived in September of 2008, most in the black community didn't trust the police so they didn't turn to them for help. But that's all changed.
"Under Chief Carey we know at the leadership, if you've got leadership at the top that you can talk to it's easier for you to reach out to the policemen on the police force," says Vaughn.
A national search brought Carey to Woonsocket. He had already served 25 years on the police department in St. Petersburg, Florida. There have been some incidents on Carey's watch - an officer was sentenced for assaulting a teen prisoner in a stairwell. But it's a lot quieter than it used to be. The Woonsocket Call's Russ Olivo says he gets far fewer leaks about problems inside the department.
"I wrote millions of stories about cops being suspended and disciplined," says Olivo." They're airing a lot less of their dirty laundry as they used to, maybe there's not as much dirty laundry to air, I don't know."
Chief Carey says one of his responsibilities is to build trust with the community," I want the community to trust their police department," he says.
On a recent afternoon, Carey strolls down a street in the Constitution Hill neighborhood. He started taking these kinds of walks last spring. There's no entourage. It's just him in his uniform.
"Well, I can be a talker a little bit, and I'm very easy to get along with," he says.
Carey says people have stopped mowing their lawns and come off their porches to tell him what's going on in their neighborhood. Twenty years ago this was a much different place. Police Captain Edward Lee used to patrol the Constitution Hill area in the late 80's. He remembers not going into that area unless she had a backup. And Lee remembers a bar, called Corey's Caf where people hung out and sold drugs and it was ground zero in the department's war on drugs.
"The police were in there constantly either, pulling over cars, chasing people through the neighborhood, arresting them for drug use, prostitution," Lee says.
He can't imagine that 20 years later his chief would be walking the streets, talking with residents. "I really wish he could grasp the change and how much it has changed there," he says, "now it's one of the better neighborhoods."
On these walks Chief Carey has discovered missing street signs and taken note of trashed property. It's cheap policing for a department that due to the city's financial problems has ten positions going unfilled.
Just in front of the Veterans Memorial Housing Development, Carey stops a shy, elementary-school aged boy pushing one of those pedal scooters. "That's a good scooter you've got there too, how are you doing today? Okay?"
He makes his pitch for the boy to help paint a mural that's going up on a wall often covered in graffiti in near-by Dunn Park. A big stretch of that wall has white paint brushed over it. It's primer covering up the latest blast of graffiti.
Woonsocket Police, with the community group Neighborworks and the Riverzedge youth development program will paint a mural over primer. Their fingers are crossed that it will stop the graffiti.
"That's what we're hoping for, that it will cut down on the responses and police reports, they'll have a beautiful mural here for everyone to enjoy," says Carey.
The mural will also stand as a reminder for both the community and the police department that things can change for the better in Woonsocket when people decide to work together.
Listen to more stories and interviews in our series, One Square Mile: Woonsocket.
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