The History of the Division of Law Enforcement

black & white image of man fishing with two boys

The history of the Division dates back to 1842, when the Commission of Shellfisheries was established to control the leasing of public lands to oyster culture. In 1870, an act of legislation created the Commission of Inland Fisheries. The three-member commission was responsible for enforcing all of the laws pertaining to inland fisheries.

The General Assembly followed up in 1899, by creating the Commissioners of Birds. A commissioner was appointed to each of the five counties. Their duties were to enforce the laws relating to birds, game, and other animals. In the past, town officials inadequately enforced these laws. This newly established commission appointed paid deputies who worked on a part time basis, as well as unpaid deputies, who received money for their services by collecting one-half the fines after convictions.

In 1935, the three commissions were joined to establish the Division of Fish and Game. The Division once again hired paid and unpaid deputies to enforce its laws. Under the Division of Fish and Game, lobster inspectors were appointed, and in 1940, these inspectors changed their status to Game Wardens. In 1954, Game Wardens once again changed their title and status and became Conservation Officers. In 1965, the Department of Natural Resources replaced the Division of Fish and Game, but retained the title and positions of Conservation Officers.

In 1978, the Department of Natural Resources became the Department of Environmental Management, which remains in existence today. Conservation Officers were placed into the Division of Law Enforcement and kept their titles until 1998, when they became Environmental Police.


black & white image of officer checking the license of two hunters with a dog

The Division of Law Enforcement provides 24-hour patrols on the state's waters, protecting Rhode Island's multi-million dollar commercial fish and shellfish industries. The laws and regulations enforced by the Division protect public health by ensuring that fish and shellfish are harvested only from clean waters and that they are marketed in a manner that maintains the quality of the seafood product. The enforcement of these laws and regulations also ensures the viability of the industry for future generations. Without this enforcement capability, there would likely be intermittent outbreaks of shellfish-related poisonings and the public would quickly lose confidence in Rhode Island shellfish as a safe food source. Perhaps even more important is the fact that lack of enforcement would threaten federal Food and Drug Administration certification allowing Rhode Island shellfish to be shipped and marketed in other states. Approximately 90% of the state's shellfish harvest is marketed out-of state. Loss of federal certification would destroy this shellfish industry and seriously damage the state's economy.

In addition to responsibilities relating to commercial fisheries, the Division also enforces Rhode Island's laws and regulations governing the recreational take of fish and wildlife. The magnitude of this recreational take can be inferred from the number of licenses issued. Over 12,000 hunting licenses, 39,000 fishing licenses, and 15,000 deer hunting permits are sold each year. These recreational activities support a healthy sporting goods industry in Rhode Island. The fish and wildlife laws are designed to ensure the long-term viability of these resources and thereby provide for the long-term viability of the sporting goods industry. The inability of the Division to enforce these regulations, due to staffing constraints, would result in over-utilization and decline in these fish and wildlife resources, severely impacting the state's sporting goods industry.

black and white image of men of various ages looking at captured lobsters

Game regulations enforced by the Division also facilitate hunter safety. Unregulated use of firearms by hunters results in serious accidents, affecting not only hunters but also others using wooded areas. Enforcement of game regulations takes on additional importance as suburban development encroaches on woodlands and increases the possibility of interactions between hunters and homeowners.

Environmental Police Officers from the Division of Law Enforcement also respond to emergency situations involving rabid animals and those suspected to be rabid. These officers also respond to numerous nuisance animal complaints that have increased as more homes are built in rural areas.

Another responsibility of the Division is the enforcement of Rhode Island's marine safety laws and regulations. Narragansett Bay is one of the Northeast's prime locations for recreational boating during the summer months due to the geography of the Bay with its sheltered coves. Narragansett Bay and its numerous organized boating events attract recreational boaters from around the world, creating a need for an effective marine safety unit. Without this level of safety within the Bay, marine-related accidents and injuries would be common. The Division is responsible for conducting investigations of all boating accidents that result in personal injury, death, or severe property damage and to prosecute all cases of reckless operation that result in injury, death, or property damage.

The Division also enforces state laws relating to vandalism, larceny, assault, and motor vehicles on the State's public land. This ensures that Rhode Islanders and tourists will be able to visit and enjoy state lands knowing that a high level of safety is being provided by Environmental Police Officers.

This Division staffs a 24-hour hotline and communications center that is used by the public to report violations of the state's wide-ranging environmental laws. It is often critical to the successful prosecution of a case that a violation is reported as it is occurring and enforcement officials respond immediately. This 24-hour hotline also serves as an effective deterrent. Without this capability, there would be a far greater incidence of violations and a diminished capability to prosecute.

In order to enforce this range of regulations, the Division maintains a staff of 31 enforcement officers, has 25 boats to patrol the state's waters, and operates a state-wide radio network providing 24-hour radio communication to all field officers and other department personnel who require such communication in the event of environmental emergencies ranging from oil spills to hurricanes. The Division also provides telephone answering service for the State Fire Marshall's office, the State Bomb Squad, and DEM's 23 other divisions during off hours.