Rhode Island’s attorney general for the last 8 years, Peter Kilmartin, reflects on his remarkable tenure
As a lifelong Pawtucket resident who grew up in the city’s Broadway neighborhood, Peter F. Kilmartin may be remembered by some of the city’s most senior residents from way back to when he was a teenaged soda jerk or when he was stocking shelves at the old Star Market grocery store.
Others may remember Kilmartin as a fresh-faced, wet-behind-the-ears police officer newly-minted out of the academy in the mid-1980s who made a difference on the beat, protecting and serving the city he’s called home. Still yet, more may recall Kilmartin as the self-proclaimed “old-fashioned country doctor” of law in Pawtucket.
That persistence, that same level of tenacity and doggedness toward justice that landed Kilmartin on the force in his hometown is exactly the same sort of attitude that found him rising through the ranks within the Pawtucket Police Department, then toward a seat in the General Assembly, and ultimately two terms as the state’s Attorney General.
Kilmartin is term-limited as Attorney General and he is in the waning days of his eight years in office, before he turns over the reins to incoming AG-elect Peter F. Neronha next month. He sat down with The Times on Thursday for an engaging, two-hour interview about his career and his future.
After joining the Police Department in July 1984, Kilmartin spent days finishing his undergraduate degree at Roger Williams University and his nights walking the beat and protecting the streets in Pawtucket. After graduating from RWU in 1988 with a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Kilmartin pursued his law degree at Roger Williams’ law school, graduating in 1994, then working full time at Pawtucket’s Horan Law Office. All the while, he rose through the ranks at the Pawtucket Police Department, reaching the level of captain.
“I always wanted to help make my city a better place, and what better way than to keep them safe? It appealed to me,” Kilmartin said of his time in the blue. “One analogy between both jobs (police and AG) is that I liked the fact that there are no two days that are the same, there are unexpected things that come up in the course of a day you need to ponder or make an immediate decision on and that’s attractive to me.”
“That’s how diverse this office is and how diverse the Police Department is,” he continued. “I worked a lot of third shift by virtue of being in law school and the General Assembly, a lot of nights where it was awful lonely, but other nights where there were three dead bodies and you went bell-to-bell.”
“My commitment always was to the department,” Kilmartin said of the delicate balancing act between education and employment. “I got to utilize my lawyering skills in the prosecution division. When I left the department, the only reason I left was I was a captain, I had maxed out time-wise, and it was a young command staff. I didn’t see upward mobility. It was more of the head than the heart to leave the department.”
Not content simply protecting the public, Kilmartin wanted to be advocate for his community and he saw an opportunity on Smith Hill. His first successful run for office came in 1990 as he won the race for District 80 State Representative. Following a downsizing in the House of Representatives, Kilmartin would serve District 61 in the General Assembly.
“For my last election (in 2008), I knew at that time that I wanted to call it quits after 20 years. In that time, I had no designs on running for this office, I didn’t think I’d consider it,” Kilmartin recalled. “Patrick Lynch was term limited at the time … As I thought about it in depth, I knew I had the passion to run for this office, and that I’d consider it a culmination – serving the community, volunteering – that this would be the culmination of that.”
Kilmartin ran for Attorney General in 2010, decisively winning in the general elec- tion with 43.1 percent of the vote among five candidates after a tight race in the Democratic primary, which he won by only 0.6 percent over fellow Democrat Stephen R. Archambault.
“When I made the decision to run, in late 2009, fall 2009, there were other people who had announced. For me it made total sense, both personally and professionally,” the former police captain and attorney said. “I guess if you look back, the justice system’s been my entire professional life. Even in the General Assembly, most of the bills that I worked on were somehow related to the justice system, from witness protection bills to bills regarding drunk driving … The General Assembly was a good place to learn a little bit about a lot of things.”
Ever the tireless workhorse, Kilmartin said he recalled leaving his inauguration activities shortly after being sworn into office to receive updates on ongoing cases before the AG’s office. Hitting the ground running from day one, the neophyte Kilmartin was quick to work with colleagues across America – willing to cross party lines to receive input from the likes of Florida’s Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi or Kentucky’s Democratic AG Jack Conway.
“I’ve always considered interaction among colleagues, whether at police level or state level, always as important. I don’t think any of us have all the answers, we need to be resources for each other. There’s always room for improvement, and that’s where you can rely on your colleagues,” he said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
One particular instance stuck out in Kilmartin’s memory. While the city of Central Falls was in bankruptcy earlier this decade, he phoned then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris to discuss how her office handled the three-year-long bankruptcy of Vallejo, Calif. and whether her office had any direct dealings with the matter.
Some years later, Kilmartin said, another California city went into bankruptcy and this time it was Harris who reached out to Kilmartin for advice.
“Those interactions at the Attorney General level are the ability to learn from each other,” he said. “Dealing with the opioid crisis, identity theft, police shootings, you pick the issue and we’ve had discussions on it.”
Over his eight years in office, Kilmartin has risen through the ranks of attorneys general, co-chairing the National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute and serving as a designee to the International Association of Prosecutors among the highlights on his resume.
“A crime in Providence, Pawtucket, or Westerly might be local in nature, but so many crimes cross state and international borders. That’s added a whole new level of complication to the investigation of crime to the law enforcement level,” he said. Through his work with the IAP, he’s interacted with prosecutors from nearly 100 nations, discussing matters from drug and human trafficking to phone scams.
Kilmartin also played a role as Mexico transitioned from an inquisitor system of justice – where the court is involved in investigating the case – to an adversarial system similar to what is seen in America with a prosecution and defense and the court as an impartial judge.
“I went down to Mexico dealing with the management of prosecution divisions, trying to tell them what we do and how this system works, because they were starting from scratch,” he said. “It’s important so our neighbors have a solid justice system in place. They’re on our border, they’re our neighbors. Just as we look out for our neighbors in Pawtucket, we look out for our neighbors across the world.”
Just as the world around him is evolving, Kilmartin is quite aware of how things have changed on his doorstep.
“I can guarantee you that, never mind in eight years, even for my re-election four years ago, this office has changed,” he said. “The duties continue to grow and get sophisticated. Internally, we have new computer systems in place, over 20 IT projects in the pipeline, but one of the big changes from the national level is there has been a big uptick in mostly Democratic AGs calling the Trump administration to task for ignoring rule-making procedure, trying to change without public input.”
“We find ourselves now challenging the national government to continue the progress forward and not take the steps backwards,” he said. “There’s a misperception, through no fault of anybody, but if we have a case we want to sign onto, we don’t just put signatures to it, I have attorneys vet it to ensure the law applies and has effect in Rhode Island.”
But just as the political climate has changed, Kilmartin knows that crime itself and the criminals participating in nefarious activities have advanced over the past decade. He says it “all comes down to communication with colleagues in the country and local law enforcement.”
“Our colleagues in this office, there’s a reason I have 100 emails coming in today from every attorney here, what cases we’re working on or are coming up in the near future,” he said. “That provides a trend for me in my head and the management team, some of the things we’re facing.”
“That’s one of the things that’s always a problem on the streets – criminals get creative with crime. They see opportunity with crime and that’s something that police, legislators, this office have to keep up with,” he added. “It’s always dynamic.”
“I always wanted to help make my city a better place, and what better way than to keep them safe? It appealed to me.”
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, pictured in his office on Thursday, is leaving the post after eight years because of term limits. Kilmartin, a lifelong resident of Pawtucket and a former police officer in that city, reflected this week on his professional progression and on how he approached the job of the state’s top law enforcement official.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin stands with Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien at the Pawtucket Police Department’s 2016 Annual Awards and Memorial Ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park. Kilmartin started his career in law enforcement as a Pawtucket police officer, eventually rising to the rank of captain.