PROVIDENCE — Ahead of Labor Day weekend, The Interstate Navigation Company — which owns and operates the Block Island Ferry — said they are prepared for crowds and have hired additional security.
“In light of isolated incidents aboard the Block Island Ferry this summer, we have reviewed our current security procedures and available resources,” said Interstate’s head of security William McCombe on Friday. “We are continuing to work closely with the local and [Rhode Island] State Police, US Coast Guard as well as a private security company to assure the safety of our passengers.”
The news comes just weeks after brawls broke out at Ballard’s Beach Resort on Block Island on Aug. 8. The chaos spilled over onto the dock and the ferry itself, leading to fights and several arrests, after intoxicated patrons left the resort.
McCombe is Block Island’s emergency management agency director, who previously served as the chief of New Shoreham Police from 1992 until June 2004, and graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico in 1994. He told the Globe Friday that he believed the incidents in August were “isolated” and wants passengers to be confident that their safety is a priority on the Interstate’s ferries.
Interstate has recently faced criticisms from Ballard’s owner Steve Filippi and his attorney Brian LaPlante, who both insist that what happened beyond the resort’s property in August was not their responsibility, but that of the ferry company’s.
After a show-cause hearing on Aug. 22, the Town of New Shoreham’s Board of License Commissioners — made up of members of the town council — voted unanimously to suspend Ballard’s liquor and entertainment licenses for two weeks in response to the brawls that broke out during the Aug. 8 music festival and on the Block Island Ferry later that night. Ballard’s appealed with the state Department of Business Regulation and the state Supreme Court, and had both licenses restored.
In an emergency motion to stay, LaPlante, of LaPlante Sowa Goldman in Cranston, claimed that Ballard’s is not responsible for altercations that happen in line at the ferry dock, which is located steps from the resort. LaPlante wrote in the motion that “the Block Island ferry is a private company, and it was aware of the large number of tickets sold for the ferry that day and is responsible for the boarding and exiting of its patrons on its ferries.”
Michael R. McElroy, of McElroy & Donaldson in Providence, has represented Interstate for years and said its “simply a public transportation service” and their ability to control incidents like what took place on Aug. 8 is “limited.”
“We’re not a whole lot different than a bus service,” said McElroy on a call Friday.
The Interstate Navigation Company was incorporated in 1934. Diesel mechanic and electrician John H. Wronowski became its sole owner in the early 1960s, and Interstate has since operated as a family-run business. Susan Linda joined the company in 1985, according to corporate filings, and is now the company’s president. Her husband, Ray Linda, serves as general manager.
Interstate is licensed by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission to transport passengers, freight, and vehicles between Point Judith in Narragansett and Block Island by a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. The certificates are required for any vessel service transporting people or property within Rhode Island. Interstate Navigation holds a CPCN for its fleet of traditional and fast ferry boats, which carry between 500 and 1,200 people each.
Terry Mercer, associate administrator of the motor carrier section of the RIPUC, told the Globe that all for-hire transportation services on land or water are certified by the PUC. “Then [they are] on their own to provide the service authorized,” said Mercer. “There are no contracts.”
According to NOAA nautical charts, a majority of the ferry ride to Block Island is within state waters, while a small portion is in federal waters.
Mercer says some aspects of the license are regulated by the Coast Guard, while the RIPUC regulates service rates. The CPCN remains in effect unless it is revoked for cause, he said. The recent fights aboard the ferry are the only such incident involving the ferry since he started with the agency 22 years ago, he said.
Interstate’s license was issued on June 25, 1954.
“The [RIPUC] is the only [state agency] with any jurisdiction over this service, although the State Police may or may not still be investigating this particular incident (they certainly wouldn’t tell us either way),” Mercer wrote in an email to the Globe last week.
Jonathan M. Gutoff, a law professor at Roger Williams University who specializes in maritime law, told the Globe Friday that the RIPUC could have the authority to mandate Interstate to provide additional security and/or deescalation training to their staff. But he does not agree with Ballard’s legal argument that the events of Aug. 8 were not its responsibility.
“If people get drunk at any place, like Ballard’s, and go off to become a public nuisance anywhere, then there’s ... common law that it would be on the establishment that served them,” said Gutoff. “If this happened right outside any nightclub in Providence, it would be the nightclub that would need to be held accountable.”
On Aug. 8, when the rowdy reggae festival at Ballard’s ended around 6 p.m., an exodus of people — some of who were reportedly intoxicated and unruly — left the resort to catch the last ferries to the mainland. Brawls that started at the resort spilled over into lines for the ferry and onto the vessel itself while en route to the mainland that night. Chaos lasted for hours.
North Kingstown and South Kingstown police officers leaped in open water from a Coast Guard vessel onto the ferry. Video taken by passengers show the officers boarding the boat, assisted by crew members, and then drawing their weapons. The fight happened on an unscheduled ferry that had been added because of overcrowding.
Authorities secured the vessel, and seven people were arrested, including at least one person with a knife. Chevon R. Towns, 20, of Providence was charged with weapons other than firearms prohibited after a three-inch, dual-blade Batman pocketknife was found on him. Another knife may have been tossed overboard, according to documents from the Rhode Island State Police in a public records request filed by the Globe in August.
An Interstate staff member told the Globe Friday that at no point during the summer has the service had to add additional, unscheduled ferries — including the typically crowded July 4 weekend — other than the night of Aug. 8. That night, there were allegedly “about 1,000 people” waiting at the dock when the last scheduled ferry left for the mainland, forcing the ferry to add additional, unscheduled trips.
Interstate authorities said the ferries transported approximately 3,000 people without any incidents that same day. Many of Interstate’s seasonal employees are college students, but do undergo a basic security training, which is mandated by the Coast Guard.
Mercer said the RIPUC routinely reviews the ferry operation’s processes and ensures compliance with state law. But it has never addressed “unruly” behavior aboard its vessels, which he said would “generally be up to the State Police, New Shoreham Police, Narragansett Police, or the U.S. Coast Guard.”
Gutoff said he understands how it might be hard for the ferry company to make a judgment call and leave many intoxicated people stranded on the island, as it would put pressure on a police department that does not have a large force.
“But you don’t want to take a boat full of drunk people either,” he said.
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