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Politics & Policy

Rhode Island’s Governor Sends the National Guard Out in a Door-to-Door Search for New Yorkers

National Guard Officers work at a checkpoint, amid restrictions on travel due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Westerly, Rhode Island, March 28, 2020. (Oliver Doyle/Reuters)

At a time when everyone in the country needs our leaders thinking the clearest, the governor of Rhode Island has decided to deploy police and the state’s National Guard for a house-to-house search for transplanted New Yorkers.

With support from the Rhode Island National Guard, local police officers set out on Saturday to identify New York state residents in local neighborhoods and provide face-to-face notification about newly imposed quarantine requirements for visitors from the Empire State.

The operation represented a more residential offshoot of other law enforcement efforts, mostly on the road, that Rhode Island State Police led off on Friday with support from the Guard.

They encountered people in authoritative attire, either police blues or camouflage fatigues, who notified them of a requirement for New Yorkers to immediately go into quarantine for 14 days on arrival in the Ocean State.

In Westerly, no one was arrested or cited. But the historic spectacle of authorities pursuing non-Rhode Islanders, who are now subject to special rules, highlighted the challenges Rhode Island’s public health leaders face in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Westerly, six teams went “driveway to driveway” as Westerly police Chief Shawn Lacey put it, to identify cars, SUVs and trucks with New York license plates.

Then the duos, one police officer and one National Guard member, approached whoever was living in the house.

For those wondering if this violates the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, the National Guard can be used to assist state and local law enforcement, if invited by the state’s governor. Air Force general Joseph Lengyel said earlier this month that was one reason the president should not federalize the National Guard in response to this crisis; once nationalized, the National Guard cannot assume any role in assisting state and local law enforcement.

I’m trying to think of a decision that would do more to stir public panic than members of the military going door-to-door with police and checking the legal residency of those inside. There’s plenty of precedent for using the National Guard in emergencies, but even in the worst of circumstances, National Guard leaders understand the importance of not creating the impression that the area is under martial law and all traditional protections under the law have been suspended:

In one now-famous scene during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who was in charge of the Defense Department’s response to the catastrophe, shouted at troops to lower their guns.

“Put those **** weapons down!” he shouted, waving one arm for emphasis. “I’m not going to tell you again, ******* it! Get those ******* weapons down!”

The presence of armed guardsmen can spook locals into thinking that they are under “martial law,” which means that the military assumes police powers because local courts and authorities aren’t functioning.

In the face of criticism from the ACLU and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo chose to implement a new order requiring anyone entering the state from anywhere else to quarantine for 14 days, making exceptions only for public-health, public-safety, or health-care workers.

There are a lot of things that the Rhode Island National Guard could do to help in this crisis. Going door-to-door looking for non-state residents is not one of them.

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union; some of the cars on the highways are no doubt traveling from Connecticut to Massachusetts and vice versa or from other states. The Fourth Amendment would probably prohibit police from stopping any car with out-of-state plates simply for that reason.

Our liberal friends have warned the world about the barely repressed fascist impulses of conservatives and Republicans for a long time. What would they think if a Republican governor were deploying the National Guard door-to-door demanding to know what states people were from?


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