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Crime in the time of the coronavirus

Major David A. Lapatin, head of the Providence Police Dept.'s investigative division, said his detectives take precautions against the coronavirus, but "there comes a time where you just have to do what you have to do. You have a murder in front of you, and we have to do our work.”
Major David A. Lapatin, head of the Providence Police Dept.'s investigative division, said his detectives take precautions against the coronavirus, but "there comes a time where you just have to do what you have to do. You have a murder in front of you, and we have to do our work.”Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE -- The evening rain pattered down, hitting the cold ground like dimes as detectives walked through trash-strewn weeds to a scene of death.

The bodies of a young man and a young woman were tumbled together inside her car, which had been driven onto the railroad tracks just outside downtown Providence and abandoned.

Shot to death in one city, dumped in another. A tragic, complex mystery.

But that wasn’t all that was complicated about this case. The cops who responded to the 911 call from an Amtrak worker had to drive to the scene alone in their cruisers. Once there, they couldn’t cluster together as usual to discuss their observations. Some of them wore surgical masks.

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From crime scenes to court hearings to prison cells, the coronavirus has altered the criminal justice system in Rhode Island, changing how police officers, investigators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and correctional officers do their jobs, sometimes in profound ways.

The Cops

No more roll calls, and no doubling up in cruisers. No questioning suspects without masks, and, at the prison, walking around anywhere without a mask.

Arrests are down. Fewer guns and projectiles are being examined -- the director of the state crime lab said he allows only priority cases now.

The nature of the work is about human contact, and yet the only way to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease is to do as much work apart as possible.

But that only goes so far in law enforcement.

“There comes a time where you just have to do what you have to do. You have a murder in front of you, and we have to do our work,” said Providence Major David Lapatin, head of the investigative division, referring to the victims found in the car. “That work puts us a little in front of the virus, but there was not one person at that scene who was backing up from it.”

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Cops tend to cluster at crime scenes, but not anymore. Instead of bringing people into the station for questioning, detectives are going out with recorders and interviewing people on the street, he said.

They still use the interview room for interrogations, but now the detectives and the suspects wear masks and gloves. “There’s nothing we’re not going to do,” Lapatin said.

Good detectives seek to build rapport and read a person’s body language during interrogations. The reality is, face masks get in the way.

Investigators say it’s harder to make a connection when you can’t see someone’s entire face -- and they can’t see yours -- and it’s more difficult to interpret how they are responding to questions. The mask is a reminder of the threat of COVID-19, as well.

So investigators have to take that into consideration: Are the suspect’s answers and body language an indication of guilt, or the fear of being exposed to coronavirus? Are witnesses more reluctant to talk to police because they are worried about infection?

The author of “Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques” said masks can cause problems in other ways.

“At the [homicide] scene, the mask is uncomfortable and you just want to take it off. You want to speed up, but that’s the last thing you should do," said retired NYPD Lieutenant Commander Vernon J. Geberth. “Little things mean a lot. You have to slow it down.”

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Geberth wrote about how investigators should protect themselves from communicable diseases at the crime scene. But COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, is different, and those who are infectious may not show symptoms.

“Now you have to worry about breathing,” Geberth said.

* * * * *

Sidney Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, recently took a call from the worried chief of a small department.

One of his detectives had just tested positive for coronavirus. That meant the department had to consider that it was possible that seven other detectives had been infected -- as well as the chief, who had spent 45 minutes talking with the detective in a small office.

“Meanwhile, what do you do with those officers? You have to make sure they’re not positive, but how do you use them while you wait for tests?" Wordell said.

Chiefs are leery about allowing their officers to return after the two-week quarantine without getting tested again -- but they were running into problems getting them prioritized for tests, Wordell said.

An initial arrangement to have priority testing for first responders at the CVS rapid testing site dissolved. Some officers are going to test sites in Massachusetts that give law enforcement priority, he said.

The chiefs association was trying to work out an arrangement with state health officials, but Wordell said it was “disheartening.”

“I know they’re doing a lot of testing with nursing homes and outbreaks, and law enforcement doesn’t have a problem being in line, but first responders and health care workers should be a priority,” Wordell said. “First responders are still the 24/7 operations, and agencies and communities rely on these individuals.”

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As of April 27, there were 29 officers in Rhode Island who were not able to work because of the coronavirus. Eight had tested positive, and the rest were either waiting for test results -- or waiting to get tests.

Small departments especially run into trouble when one infection sends a good part of their roster into quarantine, Wordell said. “One department had 13 officers with a brutal assault and arrest, and they were all exposed,” he said.

The departments have mutual aid agreements, so neighboring agencies can step in and handle calls for those that need help. A bigger outbreak in multiple towns would mean calling in the National Guard for help, Wordell said.

Since the governor’s stay-at-home order went into effect in late March, police chiefs noticed that the source of infections in their departments was work-related, Wordell said. So, they’ve looked for ways to reduce the risk of infection.

The police chiefs worked out an arrangement with the attorney general’s office and the judiciary to arraign people with COVID-19 separately. The defendants are now arraigned by Web video conference in a secure office, which is thoroughly cleaned, at the attorney general’s building in Cranston.

The long-term problem will be having enough PPE -- gloves, masks and hand sanitizers -- to keep officers safe as they do their jobs. The chiefs are expecting that they’ll have to require officers to wear masks for a long time, and having enough “is our biggest concern and obstacle right now,” Wordell said.

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And everyone is in competition for the same goods.

The Courts

On a recent Friday morning, the justice system looked like an audio stream over YouTube.

“Brian Stern. I’m associate justice.” With that, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern began the judiciary’s first remote hearing.

The Providence Public Safety complex.
The Providence Public Safety complex.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Coronavirus had forced the judiciary to get remote hearings up and running. While judges in all of the courts have video and teleconferences with attorney and pro se litigants, hearings require a record of the proceedings, said spokesman Craig Berke.

Stern was the first judge to hold a hearing. His calendar was also a first. He was presiding over the court’s new business protection program, meant to help businesses struggling or closing because of COVID-19.

Under the program, the court will supervise and provide protections for Rhode Island businesses so they can remain operational, access new working capital, and pay debts.

“Unprecedented situations call for innovative solutions,” said Presiding Justice Alice Gibney in an announcement last month.

The first case was a company that had endured the Great Depression, only to become a casualty of the pandemic.

Conway Tours, a family-owned company in Cumberland, had catered mainly to seniors, from day trips to New York City, to 12 days in Amalfi, Italy. It closed last month after 94 years in business, leaving about 900 people owed about $1.3 million for deposits for trips that were canceled.

There were assets and an employee 401(k) plan to discuss. Stern appointed Richard Gemma as a permanent receiver, and then thanked people for participating.

Other judges are following. The state Supreme Court is working toward possible oral arguments, remotely, in mid-May. Arraignments are over video links between the ACI and the court complexes.

In mid-March, Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell suspended court calendars and closed courthouses to all non-emergency matters the week after Governor Gina M. Raimondo declared the state of emergency.

Emergency and essential matters for Family Court and District Court are still heard in Providence, at the Garrahy Judicial Complex, and for Superior Court at the Licht Judicial Complex. But the McGrath Judicial Complex in South Kingstown and the Murray Judicial Complex and Newport were closed completely.

Under Suttell’s order, only capital cases, domestic violence, violent crimes, drunk driving, and fugitive from justice cases are considered emergencies, along with charges relating to violations of executive orders under the state of emergency, such as breaking quarantine.

That’s meant far fewer criminal arraignments, District Court Chief Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia said. The court also planned to conduct arraignments by WebEx directly with the police departments, to limit bringing people to the courthouse, she said.

As the pandemic continues, the court is using technology more to do its work. All of it is meant to eliminate the need for direct contact, LaFazia said.

Corrections

The state Department of Corrections had given correctional officers two surgical masks each. However, after the first scare of coronavirus at the ACI more than a month ago, the union bought their own KN95 masks to wear instead.

When Richard Ferruccio first wore his KN95 mask for work inside the Adult Correctional Institutions, he realized something pretty quickly.

“Oh my God, now I know what the Patriots feel like when they go to Mile High Stadium. I was winded,” said Ferruccio, the president of the R.I. Brotherhood of Correctional Officers. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like when we wear them in June and July.”

It’s quiet on the inside now. There are no more visitors. There’s less time for recreation, as the prison has reduced the number of inmates who can go outside at any one time. To make up for the lack of visitors, inmates can make more calls for free and send up to five letters a week for free.

So it’s just correctional officers and inmates, watching how the disease is spreading on the outside, and wondering what will happen if it gets inside.

“Some inmates tell me they don’t want to get out,” Ferruccio said. “They don’t really know what’s out there. They don’t have any place to go.” Some who were recently released ended up at the Wyndham Hotel in Warwick, which the state is using for people who are homeless and need to quarantine.

Coronavirus is whipping its way through other correctional facilities, such as MCI-Framingham, which confirmed 70 infections last week.

So far, 11 correctional officers at the ACI had tested positive, as well as a staff member in medium security and two staff members at the women’s facility, said corrections spokesman J.R. Ventura.

The department is trying to prevent COVID-19 from launching inside the prison. All new offenders are quarantined for 14 days, whether or not they show symptoms, Ventura said. Those who are positive -- just two so far -- are placed in full PPE gear before they are allowed inside, and then escorted by officers who are also wearing PPE to an isolation area with negative-pressure rooms, he said.

The ACI has doubled its cleaning and sanitizing at the facilities. The inmates in the prison’s textile program make cloth masks for the other inmates and officers to wear.

But the Department of Corrections is also collaborating more with police, prosecutors, and the courts on alternatives to keep people from being held in prison.

If there are safe alternatives and the person doesn’t have to be confined to the ACI, and can instead be on home confinement or low bail, “than we prefer that,” Ventura said.

This move took off in earnest in late March, when acting Rhode Island Public Defender Matthew B. Toro filed an emergency petition to release inmates whose sentences were set to expire in 90 days, to ease crowding amid the coronavirus outbreak.

On April 3, the Rhode Island Supreme Court approved the release of 52 inmates, all nonviolent offenders. The prosecutors, public defenders, and corrections officials had worked together to consider each case, examine whether the person would be likely to re-offend, and look into whether they would have a stable place to live.

At the same time, they are all trying to figure out how to administer justice. “The whole thing is drastically different -- it’s not anything that anyone was prepared for,” Toro said.

The public defenders aren’t allowed into the prison to see their clients. So they call, write, and use Webex for attorney and client conferences. It’s not ideal.

The court is also in the process of expanding video technology between defense attorneys and clients who are not incarcerated.

The pandemic is exacerbating the wait for grand juries and trials. Under Rhode Island law, prosecutors have six months to convene a grand jury in certain felony cases, such as homicides or the case can be dismissed.

Attorney General Peter Neronha said they are talking with the judiciary about bringing a grand jury in by the end of May. The grand jury room doesn’t allow for social distancing, however, so they have to figure out what to do, he said.

“And, how do you convince grand jurors to come in, frankly?” Neronha said. “That’s what those discussions are about. How do you do it safely for grand jurors, when you have to maintain secrecy and security?”

The closure of the courts for all but emergencies has given the prosecutors a chance to catch up and prepare their cases, Neronha said. Their average caseload is about 150 to 200, he said, and this time is giving them an opportunity to think about how they could do their work differently.

Can they dispose of nonviolent cases more quickly? Can they move some into diversion, instead of taking the cases all through the court system?

Both the public defenders and the prosecutors are in the middle of reacting to the crisis, but they also wonder what the justice system could look like when it’s over, and whether it will force some type of reform.

And Even the Criminals

Criminals are adapting, too.

A man who walked into a Stop & Shop in Pawtucket one recent Sunday looked like any other good citizen in the age of COVID-19.

He wore gloves and a surgical mask. The only thing out of place was his demand for money.

The surveillance photos later released by the Pawtucket police just looked like a man following the governor’s orders to mask up.

The perfect disguise for a robbery.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.