STOCKBRIDGE -- After three weeks of ascending the learning curve, the new leader of the town's police force takes charge today -- a day after longtime chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox's official retirement.
Robert M. Eaton, Jr., 46, is only the third head of the department since 1955 -- Wilcox and his predecessor, William "Officer Obie" Obanhein, each held the post for nearly three decades.
For Eaton, supervision is second nature. For the past decade of his nearly 24-year stint on the Smithfield, R.I., force, he held the rank of captain, third in command and in charge of administration in a 41-officer department.
In Stockbridge, "ultimately, the buck stops with me," he said during a conversation at the police station. "At the end of the day, I'm responsible. But where I came from, I was also responsible for how my officers operated. Proper supervision prevents poor performance and a lot of problems in the long run."
Intent on hitting the ground running, Eaton voiced enthusiasm about his mission -- "there are a lot of things we're going to be able to do here at the department, along with the community." He urged townspeople to reach out to him with any concerns.
"Chief Wilcox has established his own legacy, and I need to establish mine," he stated. "The police department needs to give me a chance as well."
"Rick has done a fantastic job," Eaton emphasized. "He's built great community relations, a partnership with all the different organizations in town, especially with the officers. They're very dedicated to their job."
With one full-time vacancy to be filled, he noted, the current staff is working open shifts, "sacrificing their personal lives to ensure the safety of the community."
Five full-time officers report to the chief, with 12 reservists on call.
Eaton complimented his officers as "very supportive, not only of me but throughout this transition."
"I am so fortunate to have had this opportunity to be mentored by Rick," he pointed out. "He's a wealth of knowledge and he's opened doors for me to meet and greet members of the community and different organizations to ensure we maintain the department's relationship and my relationship as chief. I think we've accomplished that."
Compared to Smithfield, Eaton observed, Stockbridge is notable for its tourism, with heavy weekend traffic and events clustered from spring through fall.
But there are 21,000 permanent residents in his former town, he said, with 35,000 to 40,000 people traveling through on a typical day. In contrast, Stockbridge had a population of 1,947 as of the 2010 U.S. census, and 65 percent of the properties are owned by part-time residents.
"That has its own concerns -- for residences that aren't occupied year-round, we need to make sure we're deterring any want-to-be criminal," said Eaton.
While the crime rate here is lower than in Smithfield, he acknowledged, "it doesn't matter whether you're in a town with 100 officers or five officers, there's crime everywhere. In Stockbridge, we don't get the volume that a larger town gets on an everyday basis."
"That makes our job more dangerous," Eaton explained, "because we're not dealing with those issues that the bigger departments deal with every day. So, we have to be at the top of our game all the time, and we work by ourselves -- we don't have the luxury of an additional officer backing us up, unless it's mutual aid."
He likened it to an athlete who has to be in top form, even if he or she doesn't get to work out every day.
"I understand that there's very good mutual aid in Berkshire County, specifically surrounding us, so we're fortunate for that," he added.
Mastering day-to-day operations is already well underway for the new chief.
He also plans to reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of Brooklyn, N.Y., labor organizer Jan Stackhouse on a quiet country lane in May 2005, Wilcox told The Eagle last week.
Eaton emphasizes service to the public with "fair and objective" treatment for everyone. "Customer service has to be No. 1, regardless of whether it's a victim or a criminal, a first-time or repeat encounter."
Updating the department's social-media presence on its web page, Facebook and Twitter are on the to-do list, as well as holding open houses at the police station "so the citizens of Stockbridge can see what they have. We're proud of what's here."
Eaton acknowledged that bidding farewell to his colleagues in Smithfield created "a sense of loneliness. I had a lot of good friends, good relationships inside the department."
Although he didn't want one, his chief organized a going-away party attended by officers as well as Eaton's wife, Jean, and his son, Carlton, 17, a junior at Smithfield High. Until he graduates, Eaton will be a weekend dad and husband pending the family's relocation to the Berkshires.
The new chief is renting while he continues house-hunting locally and within 15 miles of the town's borders, as required by the state. "I'd prefer to stay in town," he said.
Prior to his official swearing-in at the town offices on Feb. 3, Eaton had already been spending at least two days a week in town since his three-year contract was settled at the beginning of January.
Eaton hopes for a long stay but, he observed, "the day I know I'm not being effective anymore as a police chief would be the day that I have to hang up my gun belt and move on. There are a lot of things to keep us busy here, and I think we'll be able to be effective for a long time to come."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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On Twitter: @BE_cfanto