PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ah, Christmas in Rhode Island. Exquisitely decorated mansions in Newport. A red nose on the giant termite that sits atop a Providence exterminator’s building. And a traffic cop, doing disco and salsa moves in the middle of rush-hour traffic.
Tony Lepore is as much a holiday tradition as anything else in the state that issued the first jail sentence for speeding 108 years ago. Since 1984, and as a special contracted reserve officer since 1992, he has entertained drivers, pedestrians and gawkers with dance moves in downtown Providence — all while directing traffic.
“He is a Rhode Island landmark, more or less. He’s an icon, he’s like a little mini celebrity,” says Michelle Peterson, of Warwick. She’s an emergency medical technician and the mother of three boys who was introduced to the “dancing cop” years ago by her partner in their ambulance.
This year, she took her boys to see Lepore, 65, perform and got him to pose for pictures with them.
“It feels good to see him out here; it definitely brings the holiday spirit. I think people come out here just to see him and I think it brings some people to shop so they can see him.”
The routine, Lepore says, was born in the month of May of the boredom and aggravation that officers typically experience while directing rushing drivers and jaywalking pedestrians. He was inspired by classic “Candid Camera” television footage he that showed police officers directing traffic with flair.
“I didn’t know if my bosses were going to like it, so a lot of times if I saw a boss come down, I’d be doing my fancy stuff, then I’d go back and do it the old-fashioned way so I don’t get caught,” Lepore says.
His secret didn’t last long. City residents began calling the police station and raving about Lepore’s moves. A few days later, The Providence Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, came out with a story on the sensation.