Threats, Curfew, Police Restraint Amid Week Of Woonsocket Tension

Scott Souza

WOONSOCKET, RI — Woonsocket was on high alert.

Woonsocket police said they were told of "vast social media posts" during the day Tuesday that the police station was a planned target of attack that night — one night after Gov. Gina Raimondo said groups of people, under the guise of being Black Lives Matters protesters, came to "blow up the Providence Place Mall" and "torch the State House." Woonsocket Public Safety Director Eugene Jalette said those social media threats against Woonsocket public buildings were credibly corroborated by witnesses, who claimed they were told of similar plans of destruction.

As Woonsocket police fortified the station, local businesses scrambled with concern amid the rumors and hearsay, flooding Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt's office and the police with calls asking whether they should board up just as they were reopening from nearly three months of coronavirus-related shutdowns.

The sun was setting within hours. Area cities, such as Cranston, Providence and Warwick, had declared curfews.

Woonsocket officials were faced with the difficult choice whether to shut down the city.

"There was a lot of discussion back and forth about what we should do," Jalette said. "We were talking with other communities. There was some concern that calling a curfew at that point might attract even more trouble and draw some people to contest it."

Jalette said the police, public safety office and city officials were in touch with local businesses throughout the afternoon as much as possible, before issuing a press release two hours before sundown that, while a curfew was not in effect, residents were advised to stay at home, if possible.

Despite a relatively quiet night on Tuesday, a curfew was declared for Wednesday from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Then on Thursday, the curfew, which had been in place until further notice, was rescinded.

"We saw that that curfew seemed to work in area communities (Tuesday night) so we decided to try it and see how it goes," Jalette said. "This is all new us. We were trying to make the decisions that were the best we could do to keep people safe.

"In hindsight, there were things we could have improved on," he allowed.

It was all part of a high-stakes balancing act between allowing personal freedoms, the right to protest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the desire to help businesses punished severely during the coronavirus health emergency, protecting those very same businesses from damage from potential looters and vandals, and keeping both law enforcement and private citizens safe.

The easiest thing for public officials to do amid a pandemic and credible threats of violence was to lock everything down indefinitely. But for a public that has already been the subject of stay-at-home orders, economic distress, and the pain of social injustice, there was concern about how many more restrictions would be tolerated before a collective breaking point was reached within city limits.

"Safety is our biggest concern," Jalette said. "But we also have to look at the economic impact this has had on our city. You can see the scale of crime increase during a bad economy. We have to open. We have to get going on this. But we have to do it safe."

Jalette said one regret was how the curfew made some residents feel like they would be arrested for going to work, or coming home from visiting family. The order stated that exceptions were made for emergency workers, those wishing to worship and the media, but Jalette said instructions were given to officers not to harass citizens traveling through the city.

"It was more for those loitering in public places," said Jalette. "We asked officers to use discretion. We had to be understanding when it came to the homeless, and people who had nowhere else to go, or didn't have a vehicle to get where they needed to go.

"We made it clear to officers that the last resort was to physically move somebody."

Jalette said no one was arrested for curfew violations on Wednesday, and that two people are facing charges for vandalism at a bus stop Tuesday night. City Hall received some superficial vandalism, but Jalette said he is "99 percent sure" no private property was damaged this week.

He said the threats to attack the police station are still under investigation.

Jalette said, in retrospect, the curfew could have been called for later than 9 p.m. to allow less impact on businesses and distress on the public. He added that, while the curfew was rescinded as of Thursday, Woonsocket police remain committed to allowing for peaceful protest, while prepared to protect residents, businesses and city buildings, if "there is a flare up."

"It feels like two years ago we were in a pandemic and we were celebrating police and fire working on the front lines," Jalette said. "But you understand how things can change quickly. I think we have a good relationship with the community. And part of creating that relationship is so when things like this come up you can resolve them peacefully.

"We can make some changes out of this. Some change is needed. But our first priority is always protecting our community."

This article originally appeared on the Woonsocket Patch