Police chief discusses drug use among teens
The Jamestown Police Department and members of the public have “conflicting opinions about what police officers should do in this community,” Chief Ed Mello told an audience of 20 residents at the Central Baptist Church.
Mello, the former Westerly police chief, addressed some of the problems between the officers and community members in an hour-long talk Sunday. Criticism against the police has appeared in letters to the Jamestown Press, he said. Officers have also come under fire for writing, as some say, too many speeding and drunken driving tickets.
Mello said policing has evolved beyond law enforcement, but the public does not always recognize the officers’ changing roles. Specifi cally, he said, some citizens have complained the police should be walking in the village on patrol. Also, they want officers to “be more visible in their children’s lives” and be out on the water.
He said he has made efforts to be responsive, but on the other hand, “There’s another side who don’t want to see a police officer.” Mello said that this is particularly true around the harbor.
Of several conflicts that have emerged between the Police Department and public, the most serious, he indicated, is a conflict about teen drug and alcohol use. According to Mello, Jamestown police are dealing with an uptick in teenage drug problems.
“A number of juveniles are involved in alcohol and drugs,” he said. “It’s a high number.”
Mello said the drugs are “low level” illegal substances, like marijuana and prescription drugs. Police are working with the prevention coalition to intervene with at-risk youth.
Mello said one result of the collaboration is an ongoing program to accept prescription drugs at the Police Department. Up to now, the “take-back” days were held only four times a year, but soon residents will be able to dispose of the drugs any day and time.
Mello may also offer self-testing kits to parents suspicious that their children are using. The par ent would come into the police station for a kit and require the child to take a urine test at home.
“That’s a pretty aggressive posture for a parent,” he said, but added that the kits are a tool that some parents may want.
Meanwhile, adults can help the effort by presenting a united front against recreational drugs and alcohol.
“The community together needs to take a position that it’s not acceptable and convey that to kids,” he said. “It’s not OK for 16- and 17-year-olds to be drinking and driving.”
But, he said, the adults do not always take the alcohol issue seriously.
Mello criticized the “level of acceptance of alcohol among teens,” which, he said, could lead to harm. He went on to explain he has talked to many parents who do not see a problem if their teen attended an underage drinking party as long as the youngster didn’t indulge. Similarly, some parents are OK with underage drinking if the youths have a designated driver.
Yet, car accidents are not the only danger, says Mello, who added that alcohol is also a factor in physical and sexual assaults. The chief said he talked to parents last week who said their 16-yearold daughter was involved in an incident. The girl, who is not from Jamestown, was “the only female in a house at midnight with alcohol present.” Mello said that circumstance should be a concern, whether or not the girl was drinking.
“Males are also physically and sexually assaulted in these age groups,” he said. According to Mello, 99 percent of the cases involve alcohol.
Although the drug problem goes beyond the island and pervades society, the police chief said parents nonetheless should be sending the youth the message that it’s not OK to drink or do drugs.
“I don’t mean to alarm everyone,” he said. “This happens everywhere. It’s everywhere we see.”
From the audience, the Rev. James Keller asked how Mello feels about a growing movement to legalize drugs, which has garnered support from some police. Mello said he is doubtful legalizing drugs would end the problems, just as legalizing alcohol has not ended drunken driving.
He also disputed the claim that the jails have been filled with people arrested for marijuana possession. Even repeat offenders do not end up in jail for marijuana possession, he said.
Mello had pointed out Rhode Island is about to decriminalize marijuana, although possession will still be an offense for juveniles. He said he sees a need for medical marijuana, but added, “You are starting to see a lot of fraud [with prescription providers].”
Mello said police supported the concept of compassion centers, but the General Assembly has not only licensed the centers, but also is allowing individual providers to grow 24 plants per patient. Other states have better systems, he suggested.
Jim Traer asked about the personal connections that police offi- cers are allowed to forge in a community.
“Will you be our friend?” Traer said. “If we ask you to come to dinner, do you feel you can come? Or not?”
Legally, Mello said, there are no restrictions, but there can be sticky situations when police officers socialize with community members. In another community, he said, he was once invited to a club meeting and asked to help with a raffle. The raffle prize was a liquor basket, and that’s illegal unless the club has a permit. This one didn’t.
Margaret Soukup asked if the club members realized he was a police officer. Yes, Mello said, and that was why he was invited. He didn’t arrest anyone that time, but he did decline to pull the winning raffle ticket. Mello said these situations can be uncomfortable.
“It just muddies the water for me,” he said.
Keller asked Mello if more police officers would live in town if Jamestown had more affordable housing.
Mello, a Westerly native, said he moved to Jamestown because he accepted the post as department head. His contract required him to live within 10 miles of the community, but although the terms gave him “a lot of options,” he decided becoming a resident was the best choice. But he went on to say he would not impose that same decision on his officers.
“It’s an individual decision,” he said.
“But can you be sociable walking down the street?” Soukup asked, who added that she always waves to the officers.
Mello said he encourages all the officers to greet people and be sociable. And although many residents feel they do not know the officers, he estimated every citizen on average has met about one-third of the department.
Mello supervised 75 officers in Westerly. By contrast, the Jamestown Police Department is small. He supervises 18 full-time employees. Four are dispatchers and 14 are sworn officers.