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Impressive Show of Force in the Smallest State : Rhode Island’s Police Department Operates on the ‘Hoover Philosophy’

Times Staff Writer

They call him the J. Edgar Hoover of Rhode Island.

Col. Walter E. Stone, 75, dean of state police departments, has been in law enforcement 55 years, 25 of them as superintendent of the Rhode Island State Mounted Police.

In the lobby of the state police headquarters at North Scituate (sit-u-ate), a lone photograph hangs on a wall, a portrait of Hoover, the late, long-time director of the FBI.

“Hoover was my idol. I run this department on the Hoover philosophy,” said Stone, who began his law enforcement career as a 20-year-old rookie patrolman in 1931 and worked his way up to Providence police chief before becoming Rhode Island’s top cop.

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There are no sheriff’s departments involved in law enforcement in Rhode Island’s five counties. It is the state police who are called in to help with major crimes, demonstrations, riots, traffic tie-ups and accidents that occur in Rhode Island’s eight cities and 31 towns.

Rhode Island’s smartly dressed troopers look like Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their charcoal-gray jodhpur breeches with red piping, knee-length leather boots, black ties, Sam Brown belts, three-quarter-length leather coats and Stetson hats. The uniform hasn’t changed since the department was formed by retired Army Col. St. John Chaffee in 1924.

“Every superintendent has been a colonel ever since,” the silver-haired Stone noted. “We have always been a paramilitary organization.”

The superintendent is appointed by the governor, who serves a two-year term. Stone has served under six governors, both Democrats and Republicans.

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“We are the highest-paid state police department in the country, except for Alaska,” said Maj. Pete Benjamin, 53, a 28-year veteran and second in command. Salaries for the department’s 170 officers begin at $22,000 a year and go to $42,000 to $46,000, with 50% retirement after 20 years.

Being a state trooper is a sought-after job in Rhode Island, Benjamin said, adding that it is not unusual to have as many as 2,000 to 3,000 applicants for 20 to 25 appointments to the 20-week academy. Sessions are held when openings occur. Usually half of the cadets wash out during training.

Troopers, corporals and sergeants work 15-hour day shifts, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., 10-hour night shifts, 10:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., three days on, three days off. Shifts are alternated every six weeks.

Lieutenants and captains work 14 hours a day, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., four days a week and nine hours the fifth day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 25% additional pay in lieu of overtime. “We’re management. We’re expected to work longer hours,” said Lt. Don Miller, 42.

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The colonel and the major work seven days a week. Stone says he’s at his desk at 7:30 every morning and works until 6 at night. Every year he takes five days off in the spring to be with his wife, daughter and three grandsons.

Until 13 years ago everybody in the department worked 5 1/2 days a week without going home, sleeping in the police barracks and spending only one-and-a-half days at home.

“The job has always been demanding. Our families accept it. They’ve grown up with it,” said Capt. John T. Leyden Jr., 46. His father is a retired police chief of North Providence. His son John J. III is a state police trooper.

Troopers wash their own cars and they clean the police barracks on weekends. They are clean shaven (no mustaches or beards) and they wear military-style haircuts.

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Like military personnel they enlist for three years. Each time they re-enlist they take another physical and are subjected to a careful evaluation.

State policemen wear hash marks on their uniforms--one for every three years served, similar to service stripes worn by servicemen.

‘We Have Great Pride’

“This is a no-nonsense department,” Leyden said. “We don’t have corrupt or inept policemen. In all my years here I’ve never heard of a policeman accused of taking a bribe. We have great pride in this outfit and we aim to keep it that way.”

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During the department’s 64-year-history, Leyden noted, two officers have been killed in the line of duty by handguns and three died in traffic accidents while on patrol.

Headquarters for the Rhode Island State Police is the 1794 estate of a Revolutionary War army officer. The property was donated many years ago by the family that owned it. The original 192-year-old, white-frame home serves as police headquarters barracks.

The old stone stable is headquarters for the 10-man intelligence division that keeps a close tab on organized crime in the state.

In 1980 the first woman trooper joined the force. Now there are four female officers.

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