This afternoon, Governor Chafee is set to introduce U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island Steven O’Donnell as his pick to be the next commander of the Rhode Island State Police. O’Donnell, who was appointed U.S. Marshal by President Obama in 2009, held the state police’s top job briefly on an interim basis back in 2007.
So who is Steven O’Donnell? Nobody knows the world of Rhode Island law enforcement better than my colleague Tim White, so I asked him for a primer. Here’s Tim’s take. –TN.
When news of Col. Brendan Doherty’s decision to step down as superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police swept across the state Thursday afternoon, one name was on everyone’s lips as his most likely replacement: Steven O’Donnell.
And for good reason – as WPRI reported over the weekend, O’Donnell is Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s pick to lead Rhode Island’s storied law enforcement agency. (While the colonel of the state police is a gubernatorial appointment, his role as public safety commissioner requires legislative approval.)
This was an important decision for the newly elected independent governor. If Chafee had failed to land someone for the job with past experience as a trooper, the perception would have taken hold that Chafee was already losing support from inside the ranks of the state police.
The choice of O’Donnell – who wore the state police uniform for 22 years before being selected in 2009 as U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island – helps squash that potential problem. But those with direct knowledge of talks between O’Donnell and Chafee said there were a few things O’Donnell needed to hear from the governor before signing on the dotted line.
Most importantly – in the wake of last month’s well-publicized immigration scuffle between Doherty and Chafee – O’Donnell wanted to make it clear that though he serves at the pleasure of the governor, the agency will be his to direct as he sees fit. In other words, no micromanaging from Smith Hill.
O’Donnell left the state police in 2009 as lieutenant colonel – Doherty’s right-hand man. Prior to that, he held the title of major and directed the agency’s day-to-day operations from state police headquarters in Scituate. But O’Donnell cut his teeth during the six years he spent working undercover as a mob associate, blending into Rhode Island’s underworld as a bookmaker.
Before becoming a trooper, O’Donnell spent years as a corrections officer at the Adult Correctional Institution, which proved to be a solid training ground – it turned him into a living, breathing Rolodex of Rhode Island’s most notorious thugs. In fact, he once told me his ACI-honed ability to drop the names of people who served time saved him from being exposed as an undercover detective – the mob wiseguys figured he’d done hard time, and that was A-OK with them.
In contrast to Doherty – who, at well over 6 feet, towers over just about everyone – O’Donnell is probably 5 feet 8 inches on a good day. But he’s about as tough as they come.
O’Donnell’s undercover work came to an end the day the state police raided a well-known gambling joint on Federal Hill. O’Donnell, decked out in his best bookie garb, was forced to blow his cover when one of the club’s owners looked ready to tackle a trooper. In one fluid motion, O’Donnell grabbed the man and turned him upside down, pinning his shoulders to the ground.
O’Donnell said word got back to him that the crook had told everyone in prison that the guy who tackled him was “huge, like 6-foot-5 or something.” It surely must have felt that way when he smacked into the pavement.
In accepting the superintendent’s job, O’Donnell is taking a hit of his own: his take-home pay will drop by six-figures. Right now he collects a paycheck as U.S Marshal in addition to his state pension, which will be frozen once he becomes a state employee again.
For those who know him, though, it’s easy to understand why he’s taking the job. Despite his present federal affiliation, O’Donnell is, and always will be, a “statie.”
Tim White is an Emmy-winning investigative reporter at WPRI 12.
For more, watch Tim’s 2009 interview with then-Lt. Col. O’Donnell:
(photo: U.S. Marshals Service)