RI State Police colonel sets sights on reopening shuttered Portsmouth Barracks

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (WPRI) – The sign on the front door of the Portsmouth State Police Barracks is emblazoned with red arrows pointing to a black box hanging on the side of the brick building, instructing visitors to “use telephone for assistance.”

Inside the box is a simple telephone handset, resting on a cradle. There are no buttons because it makes only one phone call: it automatically rings at a different barracks, 18 miles away in Wickford.

It’s been that way for five years, after the state police quietly pulled the historic barracks out of service in 2012 due to staffing concerns. Col. Ann Assumpico said the state police is still staffed at a lower level than she’d like, and now she’s hoping to replenish the ranks so the Portsmouth Barracks can once again be in operation.

“At the time in 2012, it was just, ‘We’ll reopen it when we get the staffing,'” Assumpico told Target 12. “Because of all the other things that happened, because we do assist a lot of other agencies too, we’ve just never been able to get our staffing up high enough to reopen this barracks.”

Laura Meade Kirk, a state police spokesperson, said current staffing is at 228 sworn personnel, down from 265 four years ago. And things may only get tighter: 25 troopers are eligible for retirement this year, 30 can hang up their jodhpur uniform in 2018.

On Wednesday, Assumpico announced a recruitment drive for a state police academy next June. She said she is seeking between 40 and 50 candidates, the maximum number the academy can handle. But the number of recruits that successfully make it through the intense training varies.

Despite the low numbers and looming retirements, the colonel has set an ambitious benchmark five years from now.

“I would like to get us up to 300 troopers – we need them, that’s where we should be,” Assumpico said. “A lot of local agencies are depending on us more than ever now, we get constant calls … you have smaller departments around the state and they still need our help.”

She said it would take 20 state police personnel – troopers and supervisors – to operate the Portsmouth Barracks. Its closure left only four other barracks in operation: Scituate, Lincoln Woods, Hope Valley and Wickford.

As if to underscore the dilemma – and the lack of knowledge about the situation – Richard Vaillaincourt, 80, of Tiverton, approached state police personnel and a television crew during an interview with Assumpico at the Portsmouth Barracks. Vaillaincourt said he was looking to talk to a trooper regarding an issue he was having, and found the front door locked, so he walked around the building to find the three top members of the state police with the Target 12 crew.

“I’m flabbergasted,” Vaillaincourt told a reporter. “‘They shouldn’t shut it down.”

A gift from Vanderbilt

The state broke ground on the Portsmouth State Police Barracks in 1933, and it was put into service two years later. The building sits on roughly three acres of land that was donated by William Vanderbilt, a wealthy businessman and future Rhode Island governor who was the great-grandson of the legendary Commodore “Cornelius” Vanderbilt.

Perched on a hill, the structure is on prime Aquidneck Island real estate overlooking the Sakonnet River on East Main Road (Route 138). Assumpico said lawmakers have asked if the state could cash in on the property, but she said that’s not an option.

“It has to stay within the state police because if we’re not going to use or it’s ever torn down, the land will go back to that original family,” she said.

Gov. William Vanderbilt

Inside, much of the building is a time capsule from when it was first opened 80 years ago: dark wood trim frame pale yellow walls, hulking metal radiators rest under pained windows, and a pair of cement holding cells – which once held criminal informants in organized crime investigations – sit unused.

The building has a pair of garage bays that bookend the barracks from when cruisers were kept on location and had to be maintained on site. The garages have since been converted to exercise and weight rooms. On the second floor, large metal lockers have been erected in rooms that used to hold bunk beds, from an era when troopers slept in the barracks on their extended shifts. In the first-floor offices still sit stacks of oversized books that have handwritten logs of arrests made over the decades – records which have been kept digitally for years now.

Assumpico said it wouldn’t take much to get the barracks up to speed; a two-way radio still chirps at a front desk, and a new furnace and roof were installed prior the barrack’s closing.

With a casino in Tiverton scheduled to open next year, Assumpico said there is a sense of urgency to get the Portsmouth Barracks reopened and increase patrols on Route 24.

“If you do make an arrest in the new Tiverton casino, we have to make sure that we can book them, transport them, and have them arraigned,” she said. “This barracks would do all that.”

The forthcoming academy will cost roughly $1.5 million to run, according to Kirk. She said the source of the funding has not been identified but “for now, we’ve been authorized to begin the recruitment and screening process.”

Earlier this year, Assumpico made the case to lawmakers for consistent recruitment classes that would lead to an academy every other year.

“We have catching up to do,” Assumpico said. “It’s a tough time for the state and I realize that, but we’re going to keep doing the best we can to get this barracks open.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook