STOCKBRIDGE >> As he prepares to move on to lead a 15-member department in Townsend, Police Chief Robert Eaton offers an outspoken message: He is leaving Stockbridge after two years solely for a leadership opportunity in a much larger town, not because of persistent pushback from some residents.
"Absolutely not," he declared during a conversation at the police station on Thursday. "As chief of police, I am responsible to the Board of Selectmen, the town administrator and the town as a whole, not individual people with individual agendas."
The chief said that after contract negotiations are concluded in Townsend, a community of nearly 9,000 northeast of Fitchburg, he plans to submit his 30-day notice of resignation to Stockbridge leaders and notify his officers.
"It wasn't an easy decision because I was emotionally attached to the community and the officers I worked with," he said. "We have received an outcry of tremendous support over the last few months from the silent majority. I believe I had the support of all three selectmen, the community and the staff."
He explained that he had not intended to leave Stockbridge and was not actively looking elsewhere until he was approached by BadgeQuest, the search firm helping Townsend officials. He filed an application on Dec. 28 but was not interviewed until Feb. 2 and did not learn he was the lone finalist until Feb. 5.
Eaton had already requested a contract renewal here and on Feb. 3 signed a three-year extension with the Selectboard that would have kept him in Stockbridge until February 2020.
"Nobody formally knew that I was an active candidate for Townsend going into contract negotiations — not the town administrator nor anyone on the Board of Selectmen," he said. "My wife was the only one who knew I had applied. I went into the contract negotiations here to secure my job, not knowing where I would be in Townsend."
Eaton smiled as he insisted that the critics "did not drive me out. They'll try to take that credit and that's their personalities."
Pointing to his open-door policy and "walking on the street on almost a daily basis," the chief described having reached out to the critics, "but certain individuals refused to meet with me; they'd rather address any issues they had in public."
"That's a clear message that they don't want to learn how we're doing our job here," he continued. "We had plenty of opportunities for the handful of naysayers to try to come and talk to me. They refused."
Eaton described the critics as "very disruptive to the whole community backdoor rhetoric, private meetings to discuss the police department, it's a shame because it's a beautiful community with very dedicated employees. Those few are just disruptive it takes away from the beauty of Stockbridge and Berkshire County. But they were no factor in me wanting to move on."
Some residents challenged the police budget and plans to expand the size of the force, while others questioned the number of cruisers and even disputed the location of radar units in town.
A group of 81 had petitioned for a local successor to the highly respected Richard "Rick" Wilcox, who retired after 43 years on the force — 28 of them as chief.
"Our methodology was based on modern-day policing and the desires of the majority of the residents in this town, not the minority," Eaton said. "It's my hope that this police department stays in this direction and doesn't let the minority beat them down."
"The bottom line is I came here driven by the fact that this was a community-driven department, and that's not what I had," he pointed out. "After an assessment of the functions, operations, the budget, policies and procedures, I became a change agent for the Stockbridge police department. I wasn't aware I would have to be a change agent when I came here, and I'm OK with that."
Eaton expressed chagrin that his negotiations in Townsend first became public through online news reports in the Lowell Sun and The Berkshire Eagle before he had informed town leaders and his staff in Stockbridge.
"My decision to apply and not inform anybody was my decision," he said. "Our town administrator, Jorja-Ann Marsden, unfortunately has received some unfair criticism for something she didn't know of. She had no formal knowledge that I had applied or was in the process. I mistakenly thought I had told her, that was my fault. Her and her family are dear to me and to my family. This town overworks her and under-appreciates her."
Eaton, stressing his regret over the misunderstanding, urged townspeople to "appreciate her loyalty. She gives her heart and soul, she works 24/7 for this community because she loves it. Her and her family mean the world to me, they have been my rock for two years. They treated me like family."
He also offered high praise for the members of the police force.
"After upgrading and professionalizing operations, community involvement, programs we're involved in throughout Berkshire County, our rules, regulations and equipment," Eaton said, "we have the best qualified officers who have the highest integrity and can be trusted to do the right thing."
The chief plans to recommend that his second-in-command, Sgt. Darrell Fennelly, be named acting chief.
Asked what advice he would give to his eventual successor, Eaton offered this prescription:
"Be a good communicator, be honest with yourself and everyone you work with and you work for, have good moral character and integrity to do the right thing, even if others disagree with you. Keep the course that we are on here, and you'll be fine."
In his own words ...
Police Chief Robert M. Eaton, Jr., offered some additional thoughts on his two years in Stockbridge and his decision to accept a position as head of the department in Townsend:
"This has been a pleasure and a great opportunity. This was not a 'hit and run' for me. It has been emotionally difficult for me personally and professionally to make this decision, especially as it unfolded. I'm heartbroken that people had to find out that way [through news reports]. That was out of my control, and if I could do it over again, I would have hoped that it would unfold differently."
"It was very unorthodox, how the process unfolded [in Townsend]. It was totally out of my control at that point. It didn't give me enough time to be able to properly notify the [Stockbridge] town administrator, the Selectboard, my staff or the community. That hurt me, because I hurt a lot of people that I worked with. I was very disappointed, because that's not my character."
"Since this news has come out, it's been very distracting to our daily business, and to the town and the community. That what I did not want to happen, I didn't want to disrupt our daily activities and our lives. I can only hope that my reputation of being open and honest, and our professionalism here, speaks for itself. I'm sure there are going to be some hard feelings. I kept this very quiet, I struggled with the decision of applying somewhere else."
"We professionalized the department here, we updated operations, policies, procedures. We have met our goals that we set forth in our mission, and we work off of our core values. The Stockbridge police are true professionals, policing with the best modern-day techniques and equipment to better serve the community."
"I'm very content with where we are in the Stockbridge PD, the direction we're going in. I'm very confident that whoever takes this position over, whether it's interim or permanent, will have a 'turnkey operation,' a well-oiled machine with great staff."