, Salem, MA

November 5, 2012

Peabody chief looks back on lengthy career

By Alan Burke Staff writer
The Salem News

---- — PEABODY — “You can’t see it from this window,” police Chief Robert Champagne says.

But he moves down his office conference room and points out another. “From here, you can see it. That was the family homestead.”

In one sense, he hasn’t moved far in 63 years, serving nearly four decades in a department now located within sight of what had been the Champagne house.

“I’m a Peabody kid,” Champagne says. “I was born in the J.B. Thomas Hospital.”

On June 1, he is leaving a department that he believes has been transformed and modernized during his tenure. “It’s time for new blood,” he says, “new ideas. I’ve been here a long, long time, and it’s time for fresh ideas.”

Champagne joined the department after a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he served in a “special operations” unit responsible for rescuing downed pilots in Vietnam. “Our job was to spot ’em and grab ’em.”

He downplays the notion that this was anything remarkable. “At that age, you think you’re indestructible.”

Coming home in 1971, Champagne was part of a trend, attending the first course in criminology at North Shore Community College along with future chiefs Robert St. Pierre (Salem), John Finnegan (Beverly) and Peter Carnes (Wenham). Eventually, he would have multiple degrees, including a master’s.

He was appointed to the Peabody department in 1975 by Mayor Nick Mavroules.

“I was the first police officer to come onto the department with a college diploma,” he recalls.

His colleagues were men who often had no high school diploma, having dropped out to serve in World War II.

“Peabody had a reputation of being rough-and-tumble,” Champagne says. “Blue-collar. Hardworking. And sometimes hard-fighting. ... Route 1 then was loaded with nightclubs. There was lots of drinking.” Fights broke out, and it might require “nonlethal” force to keep order. Champagne had been advised, “Don’t run into the fight, kid. Walk in. And use your head when you’re walking in.”

He knew at once that he loved the work. “When I got here, it was like, ‘Wow!’ ... Every day, there’s something new that happens. Every day, there’s the opportunity to have a positive impact on people.”

The department had three cruisers and only two with radios. “We used pencils ... everything was on paper.” Officers still relied on call boxes to communicate. One of Champagne’s first calls was a hit-and-run.

“A lady lying in the street. Your instinct is in trying to keep her alive.” She went off in the ambulance, but the word came back that she had died. Efforts were made to find someone, anyone, who had seen the accident.

“Whoever hit her just hit and they were gone,” he says. All these years later, he adds, “We still don’t know who hit her.”

In 1988, a little more than a decade after coming on the job, Champagne was elevated to chief by Mayor Peter Torigian. The dramatic rise, he says, was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The cadre of World War II officers was retiring. Chief Bobby Costello died unexpectedly.

“I tested well,” says Champagne, who is married with no children. “I studied a lot. ... I was very fortunate.”

He points to areas where he has brought the department into the 21st century, including high-tech equipment and a unique unit designed to conduct computer forensics. Peabody is where other departments send computers when they want the information they contain.

Never having used his gun on duty, Champagne notes that his officers have rarely had to use theirs. Nor have any officers been lost under his command.

“Part of it is good fortune, and part of it is by design,” he says. For example, as officers are more likely to be injured or worse in traffic accidents, they get training in how to drive.

Equipment is kept up, as well. The department is geared to “working smarter.” They’ve earned multiple accreditations.

There have been low points, Champagne concedes. In the 1990s, officers working paid details at the Golden Banana strip club became enmeshed in a federal investigation of things like witness tampering and tax evasion. Tensions between officers reached a dangerous point.

“It was a difficult time for both my officers and the city,” the chief says. “Good people made bad mistakes.” He accepts blame. “If I’m the guy on top, the buck stops here. I should have known.”

It was the springboard, however, for positive changes, he believes. “The organization grew and grew quickly to have much higher standards.”

Later, Champagne saw Lt. Edward Bettencourt prosecuted criminally for looking up the civil service test scores of fellow officers. That could have created major problems last January when Bettencourt’s son became mayor. The chief, however, has nothing but praise for “Teddy Bettencourt” and denies any tension.

“I’ve served four mayors,” he says, citing Michael Bonfanti, as well. “Each one shared an enthusiasm for keeping the city safe and for unwavering support for police officers.”

Champagne sees police work now as he saw it in the beginning, more about helping others than the cops and robbers depicted on TV. “It’s not so much about crime fighting as about connecting to people.”

And when tempers are at the breaking point, when emotions boil over, that’s often when police are asked to step in.

“Cops tend to be the voice of reason,” Champagne says.