NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — It took a chance assignment on a small island for Matthew C. Moynihan to remember what he loved about being a cop. And, what he had been missing.
He’d spent 24 years with the Rhode Island State Police, working on task forces investigating terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. He had the governor’s ear when he started an initiative that brought together law enforcement and medical workers to help survivors of opioid overdoses.
When he was assigned in March to work on Block Island as the interim police chief for the town of New Shoreham, Moynihan did not intend to stay. He was very satisfied with his career with the state police, where he’d been promoted to captain and assistant detective commander.
Though Block Island is only about 12 miles off Rhode Island’s coast, Moynihan and his wife had only visited a few times.
And then in early spring, he drove those winding roads around the island, where the waves crash against the long and lovely beaches. He stayed at the Spring House Hotel, with its sweeping lawn overlooking the ocean, waking to sunrises “that were like another world.”
He met with town officials, business owners, and residents to find out what they needed. He toured the police station with its antiquated equipment, and even though he was an outsider, and they are proudly independent, Moynihan saw ways he could help them.
Now 50, Moynihan had done this kind of work in 2014, when he and then-Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Barry were called in to manage and assess the Cranston Police Department after it was rocked by a scandal involving parking tickets, meddling by the mayor and city council members, and its chief’s departure. They weren’t exactly welcomed at first, but Moynihan and Barry took time to listen to the officers, troubleshoot the problems, and help set the department’s course.
New Shoreham felt different. The island town had something to teach him, too.
After years of managing teams and investigations, Moynihan realized he missed being part of the community, helping people, solving problems, and seeing the results immediately. He missed simply being a cop.
“The best years was when I was a trooper,” Moynihan told the Globe at a recent interview. “It’s not putting down promotions — but when I came here, I felt like I’m a police officer again.”
Within weeks of his temporary assignment, Moynihan told town leaders that he’d like to stay. They were thrilled. He was appointed as permanent chief in April and sworn in on May 1, signing a three-year contract with a $127,000 salary and housing at town-owned property at the former Coast Guard chief’s house at the old Coast Guard station. (Moynihan, his wife, and their two kids will also maintain their home in South Kingstown.)
And, because most who live year-round on Block Island have more than one job, Moynihan is also the director of public works.
Now you can find the former state police captain at Old Harbor on any given summer day. The thousands of tourists who pass him may not realize that the uniformed officer directing traffic downtownis New Shoreham’s chief of police. But summer is Go-Time for Block Island, and he wants visitors to have a sense of public safety and residents a sense of order.
This was important for the town, which has been miserably accustomed every summer to the sudden traffic jams when the ferries pull into the harbor.
“What we’re trying to do is control the traffic, so cars come off and people can disembark in a safe manner,” said Town Manager Maryanne Crawford. “It’s not a large area, and there’s a lot going on. We want to get everybody moved out, especially the vehicles.”
Moynihan meets every ferry. There are a handful of town officers, as well as a few retired officers hired for the summer season. Their visibility sets the tone for people arriving on the island, she said. “There’s been very positive feedback, especially with his presence,” Crawford said.
Moynihan also hired eight community service officers — mostly college students studying for a career in law enforcement — to supplement his team. Their paid internship, which includes housing on the island, gives the students experience in community policing, where they work under the supervision of experienced officers, direct traffic, keep watch at busy areas, and answer questions from tourists.
“It’s been amazing, honestly,” said community service officer Michael Riley, 23, who is attending Worcester State University. “A lot of the locals are very thankful that we’re here.”
New Shoreham doesn’t get crime waves. There hasn’t been a homicide here since 1989. The few reports of violent crime and property crimes have steadily declined over the last 30 years.
While the population swells from 1,400 residents to more than 15,000 or so in the peak summer season, and great white sharks are known to swim past Block Island on their way to Cape Cod, the island’s problems run toward shoplifting, alcohol-involved incidents, the decades-old controversy over moped rentals, and the traffic congestion on the few narrow downtown streets and winding rural lanes.
“It’s a different type of policing,” Moynihan says. “It’s almost a step back in time.”
But island life has its challenges, including many that police chiefs on the mainland rarely face.
The police officers didn’t have laptops in their cruisers, so they had to check license plate numbers and other information with the emergency dispatcher, who was also juggling calls from the volunteer fire department, the ambulance crews, and anyone who walks into the public safety building.
The officers didn’t have a workspace in the police station. They could fingerprint suspects, but they couldn’t run them in the FBI’s fingerprint database, known as AFIS.
There are two jail cells, but no judge or courthouse, which means arraignments are done by video. There’s no detective bureau; they have to rely on the state police to investigate major incidents. Housing is prohibitively expensive, which makes it difficult to recruit full-time officers.
Even regular things are complicated. There’s no tow yard for illegal vehicles, for one thing. There’s no full-time inspection station on the island, which means islanders need to take an expensive ferry ride over to the mainland to get their vehicles inspected.
Moynihan ordered laptops for the cruisers and an AFIS machine for the police station. He wants to renovate the emergency dispatch center. In the off-season, he’ll tackle the inspection issue and will talk to local mechanics about solutions. He’s considering sending one of the officers, who is a retired Pawtucket detective, to training so he can investigate major crimes for New Shoreham.
Moynihan also took on two major issues that chronically plague New Shoreham — moped rentals and shoplifters — and sat down with business owners to figure out solutions.
“It’s knowing how to talk to people, and we’re going to work together,” Moynihan said.
Mike Finnimore, the owner of Island Moped and Bike Rentals, said he was apprehensive at first. The companies had a good relationship with the last police chief, who’d been there for 17 years, and Finnimore was worried about what Moynihan’s background with the state police meant for them.
“With the town being hostile towards us — really trying to put us out of business — we didn’t know what to expect,” Finnimore said.
But Moynihan said he wanted to collaborate with the moped companies to crack down on the reckless riders.
They agreed that new riders needed more training and should wear safety gear. The chief suggested adding large numbers on the mopeds, to help identify dangerous riders. They also agreed that when police have to stop a rider, the companies will take back the moped and void the rider’s contract.
The plan worked: By mid-July, the police had seized more than 40 mopeds from unsafe riders.
Late one morning this summer, a family from Weymouth, Mass., came off the ferry and walked up to Moynihan as he directed traffic. They asked where they could find a ride for their mother, who uses a walker and needed help getting to Ballard’s Inn and Beach Resort at the far end of the parking lot.
They didn’t realize he was the police chief until Moynihan offered to take her there himself.
Roberta Boakye was delighted to ride with Moynihan and told him about her nephew, Edward Williams, who’s a detective in Weymouth.
His gesture also had an effect on the young community service officers, who watch his leadership.
“The chief is not doing this for the cameras,” says community service officer Brooke Foley, 20, a student at Maine Maritime Academy. “That’s just who he is.”