Peabody has always been his home, and it will continue to be even when he is no longer tasked with keeping it safe.
After nearly four decades on the force, Peabody Police Chief Robert Champagne is retiring next summer. Champagne, 63, has spent 37 years on the force and 25 as Chief in his native city, making him one of the longest serving police chiefs in Massachusetts.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt and Champagne jointly announced the news Thursday morning.
“Chief Champagne’s long record of public service speaks for itself,” Bettencourt said in a press release. “To serve a quarter century as Police Chief in a city the size of Peabody is certainly an impressive feat. On behalf of the citizens of Peabody, I thank him for his service and wish him well in his retirement.”
Bettencourt said he plans to begin the process of hiring a new chief immediately. Champagne's retirement is effective June 1, 2013.
“It has been my privilege to serve this city for all of these years. I am proud of the work that I have accomplished, especially the achievement of the Massachusetts Accredited Agency status three times, most recently in July of this year,” Champagne said in the announcement. The department is also nationally accredited.
“I want to thank all of the officers and civilians who have served in the past and continue to serve," he said. "It is upon the shoulders of those men and women where the real work of policing is done and upon whom all the credit for good should be given.”
“As Chief, Champagne worked to re-engineer the department from a ‘law enforcement only’ model to a modern community problem solving approach. As such, the department is a strong community partner today with the School Department, the faith community, social service agencies, area police departments, state and federal agencies,” reads the release from Bettencourt’s office.
Tanner City roots
Champagne describes himself as just a hometown Peabody guy who was very “fortunate” in his career.
He graduated from Peabody High School in 1966 (the old campus on Central Street) and spent four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. He said he spent most of his time in South America and Southeast Asia.
Upon returning home, he went to college and then joined the force in January 1975 – late Mayor Nicholas Mavroules appointed him as a full-time patrolman under then Chief Robert Costello. Champagne earned a number of degrees both before and after becoming an officer, from North Shore Community College, Northeastern University, Anna Maria College, the University of Virginia and finally the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy at Quantico, Va.
During the course of 37 years, Champagne also got to work under four different mayors. After Mavroules, the late Peter Torigian appointed Champagne to the top job in 1987, replacing then Interim Chief Joe Donlon who took over when Costello died in office, Champagne then began his efforts in earnest at restructuring the department several years ago with Michael Bonfanti, and now prepares to retire his shield under Bettencourt.
He said each mayor brought his own style with him, but the main thing all four men shared was an unwavering commitment to invest in and promote public safety. Champagne said he’s always been grateful for that.
So why retire now?
Champagne said he could have retired several years ago, as far as maximizing his pension goes, but he chose to stay and see through some major initiatives, such as bringing in new technology and modernizing the department.
And true, he acknowledges he tried for a police chief's vacancy out in Jackson Hole, Wy. several years ago -- he loves to ski.
Particularly with technology, Champagne says, police have made tremendous progress in recent years to include more diverse and better means of communication with each other and the public. And that goes a long way toward instilling the idea that the police are a partner in the community to help solve problems rather than just enforcing the law, he said.
Back when he joined the force, there were only two squad cars with radios in them, Champagne said. These days, the Peabody police not only have laptop computers in their cruisers and a website for the public, but they send out text message alerts, are active on Facebook and Twitter and even have a smartphone app.
And there’s plenty more to be done with technology and training, and that bar has been set high, Champagne says, but that’s mostly for his successor to tackle. Now, he said, seems like a good time to move on – the department has come a long way and 25 years sounds like a good landmark.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape right now,” he said. “I think it’s really time for some new people and some new ideas.”
“I’m the old guy,” he added, joking, but also pointing out that he manages four generations' worth of employees now, from officers in their twenties to their sixties.
Champagne actually still has a couple years left before he is required by state law to retire. The mandatory retirement age for police chiefs, officers, firefighters and fire chiefs in Massachusetts is 65.
Post-retirement he plans to stay put in his hometown -- "I already have my plot picked out at Cedar Grove," Champagne said with a laugh. And he declares equal affection for the ski slopes of New England as those in Colorado and Wyoming.
High praise for the Chief
A veritable who’s who in Boston area law enforcement also had high praise and kind words for Champagne in Thursday’s announcement.
“Bob Champagne has been a close friend for over thirty years and I have known him to be a dedicated servant to the people of Peabody, respected by local and national leaders in both law enforcement and the judiciary. He is a renowned for his proactive, forwarded initiatives in community outreach," said Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
“Chief Champagne has always been a strong leader when it comes to keeping his community safe,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley. “Through his many years of dedicated public service, Chief Champagne has focused on the important goals of prevention and holding people accountable for their actions.”
And Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said: “I want to congratulate Chief Champagne on the announcement of his well-deserved retirement. Bob is a terrific example of a leader and a mentor. Over the years I have called upon him for advice and guidance; he has always generously given both. Bob has set the bar high for those of us in law enforcement. His calm manner and effortless approach in meeting his obligations to his community, his officers and his peers, gives us all something to emulate. I consider Bob a gentleman and a friend. He will be sorely missed among those of us who have wisely sought his counsel.”
As for naming that successor, Bettencourt said, he will begin planning for the transition immediately with an eye toward naming a replacement before June 1.
Champagne said part of the reason he gave Bettencourt several months notice was to give him time to determine the best path forward. He said Bettencourt has several options for hiring a new chief.
“Time is of the essence given the critical nature of the position to public safety in Peabody,” Bettencourt said. “The search process needs to be deliberate and comprehensive and it needs to begin immediately. I am committed to getting the right person for the job.”