Col. Rick Rathbun may take some time to settle into his new role as police chief in Warwick, and that’s according to his own words.
“I’m getting used to it. It’s been a little strange,” he said after a press conference on Friday. “Someone said ‘colonel’ the other day and I looked over my shoulder to see where he was and realized they were talking to me.”
Rathbun is of course referencing the stalwart Warwick police chief Stephen McCartney, who retired at the end of 2018 after nearly 20 years in the police department’s top position.
However, despite Rathbun’s humorous quip on how his own mental muscle memory will require some adjusting to get used to the new order of things, he made it clear that the influence of McCartney’s tenure – all of the positive things that led him to become one of the most respected public figures in the state – would very much remain a constant despite the change.
“Working for Col. McCartney, he’s been able to prepare all of the command staff along the way. When I went from the operations bureau to the admin bureau, it was under his guidance and mentorship that made that transition easier,” Rathbun said. “Because of the way he’s run the department, it’s not going to be easy necessarily, but he prepared all of us, including myself in observing his leadership qualities directly and also in the daily operations.”
“He delegated when it was appropriate,” Rathbun continued. “By the way he prepared the agency and the individuals and, specifically myself, we’re not going to miss a step.”
Rathbun said that McCartney has already extended an offer to provide any continuing guidance and help necessary to ease the transition for him and the rest of the department.
“He’s a resource that not only do I value but I need. That’s 20 years of experience, you can’t replace that,” he said. “I have talked to the Colonel and he has said whatever he can do to assist. That’s been his mentality and the type of direction he’s given the entire time he was chief of police. So, while they’re big shoes to fill, I feel prepared that I can do my best to do that.”
Rathbun praised McCartney’s focus on community policing, not only through the targeted use of community police officers throughout the city but also on his insistence to treat every crime – big or small – with the same attention to detail and importance. He said this mentality would persist under his leadership.
“He recognized every call, every quality of life call that may not be a major crime was still important,” he said. “That’s stressed throughout the agency. I think that’s why Warwick is the city that it is. We respond and take every call seriously because we realize when a citizen calls, whether it’s a significant, serious crime or a quality of life issue, they expect a level of service and that will continue under my time as chief here.”
Asked if he intends to continue to develop the community policing model even beyond what McCartney has established in Warwick, Rathbun said it was important to continue to encourage law enforcement officers to ingrain themselves in the community. Such actions humanize police and lessen distrust, as seen elsewhere in the country between law enforcement and the people they police, he said.
“What we’re seeing is the spontaneous moments that come to our attention. They’re unsolicited, they’re unrehearsed, they’re unplanned. Whether an officer is playing ball in the street with someone or they engage with a young person in a parking lot that may want to sit in a police car. We’ve recognized that the people want to engage with our police,” he said. “I think building on that and focusing on getting the officers out of their car and engaging the community in addition to continuing to support our community police officers is going to be a key area we can focus on.”
Rathbun expanded on the community’s role in terms of preventing crime, saying that there needs to be a level of trust between law enforcement officers and the public. Even if a potential caller reporting a crime is worried they might get in trouble, Rathbun said it is vital for members of the community to understand the police look at each case individually and simply want to achieve the best outcome possible.
“For us to be successful they have to [be a part of the process]. We look forward to that and that’s why we take the calls that we take. We take every call seriously, but we can’t function as a law enforcement agency without the community’s involvement as a partner,” he said. “There’s a level of trust and we take every call individually. Whether it’s a crime or if it’s something that just doesn’t feel right, we’re in a day and age where if you see something, say something.”
Rathbun also said that the police will continue to expand their efforts in regards to responding to incidents of opioid abuse and incidents that involve individuals with mental health issues. He mentioned how the mental health clinician position, once made up of one clinician – Maureen Gouveia from the Providence Center – is now composed of a mental health response team working in conjunction with her.
“The opioid crisis, mental health, police use of force, those are all things where we can build relationships before an incident or event,” Rathbun said. “That comes with the transparency that was established under Colonel McCartney and will continue under my leadership.”
Rathbun reiterated that he was excited at the opportunity in front of him.
“It’s been a pleasure and I’m humbled by the decision,” he said. “I appreciate Mayor Solomon making the appointment and I look forward to this opportunity. It’s a great opportunity not just for myself but for the agency.”