TOWNSEND -- More than 100 residents lined Main Street Saturday morning in support of Police Chief Robert Eaton, who was placed on leave Friday night after blasting a town investigation into Police Department employees.
"We, as a town, have to come together," said Kelly Kelly, a 12-year Townsend resident. "They are trying to systematically dismantle our police department. The witch hunts have to stop."
Late Friday, Eaton released a statement calling the town's investigation into allegations that four police employees conducted unlawful background checks a "strategic assassination" and a "calculated maneuver to disparage and dismantle the entire department."
Eaton, who became chief in May, then was placed on paid administrative leave.
The town, in a press release later Friday, stated the town's counsel told Eaton on Jan. 31 to "discontinue your separate investigation." On Feb. 9, town counsel emphasized that Eaton "should not take any action in connection with this matter," the statement said.
"On Feb. 10, the chief in disregard of the instructions to him released the results of an incomplete, erroneous and unauthorized investigation
in contradiction of the direct orders he had received and as a result has been placed on administrative leave," according to the town's statement.
On Saturday morning, residents gathered with signs on the town common. One sign called the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator James Kreidler "corrupt as hell.
"Get rid of the crew! Support our blue!" a man chanted.
"I am here to support our Police Department, our chief and our officers," said Jaima Baldwin.
Another sign read, "Take our town back."
Kreidler, reached by telephone on Saturday, said that on the advice of town counsel, Carolyn Smart, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, signed the notice placing Eaton on leave.
"Counsel has been making it clear that the board has directed that there be one investigation, and that it be conducted by counsel," Kreidler said.
Kreidler said all other employees involved in town counsel's investigation have already been interviewed, with the exception of Eaton, who is scheduled to be interviewed Wednesday.
Smart said she was "very disappointed" that Eaton sent selectmen a memo on Friday at 2:40 p.m., saying that unless the board issued a statement exonerating the officers who are under investigation, that he would issue a public statement doing so at 5 p.m.
"I don't really understand why he would send this ultimatum that we couldn't possibly respond to," Smart said. "There was no way we could set up a meeting in two hours.
Smart said she thinks Eaton incited community members, and that her heart goes out to all those upset by the situation.
"I think we're all upset by this," Smart said. "But the investigation is not over and we can't speak on the investigation. I'd love to be able to provide them with answers, but I'm not able to at this time. I'm very disappointed in the police chief."
Mike Kelly had a table at the rally for residents to sign petitions to recall Selectmen Gordon Clark and Cindy King. Smart is not eligible to be recalled because her term ends with April's town election.
Some people on the common had supported an effort to recall Smart and Clark last year, an effort that ultimately was abandoned.
Mike Kelly also had petitions to call a Special Town Meeting. The proposed warrant article would read: "To see if the town will vote to advise the Board of Selectmen to take affirmative action terminating or otherwise removing the current Town Administrator from his position, including but not limited to seeking and accepting the Town Administrator's resignation or voting to terminate him or act in relation thereto."
Kelly said he expects "additional signing posts across town" in the coming weeks, including outside of Tuesday night's selectmen's meeting. He said on Saturday afternoon he had not had the chance to calculate the signatures, but he said he gathered them for "two straight hours."
In the meantime, residents like Leanne Jackson, who has lived in Townsend since 1978, said she commends Eaton for sticking up for the employees by conducting his own investigation.
"The chief had every legal right to release the info he did to protect his police department," Jackson said.
A recent ruling by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services "unequivocally exonerates all three police officers who were wrongfully accused of wrongdoing," Eaton said in his statement Friday. Eaton did not release that ruling.
"As a chief law enforcement officer, it is my lawful obligation to release credible and factual information that clears anyone from being wrongly accused," the chief's statement said.
Jennifer Pettit, a longtime resident, said she "has never seen anything like this."
Pettit, who resigned from the Conservation Commission last week over disputes with who the selectmen appointed to the commission, said "they are shredding the town."
Asked for his reaction to the rally, Kreidler said he would not comment in detail, but he encouraged residents to withhold judgment on the situation until the town's report is released.
"I would encourage people to wait until the completed investigation is released before they make their judgments," he said. "Nobody likes situations like this, but when issues present themselves, public officials have an obligation to look into them, and if doing so upsets people, I feel badly, but we still have to do the work."
King said Saturday night that she thinks everyone in town needs to communicate better and to work on rebuilding trust that has been shattered. King spoke highly of the police department, and said selectmen are trying to do what's right for the town after being confronted with allegations of possible impropriety.
King said she has heard from people who think police are being treated unfairly, but she has also heard from people asking questions about whether police have behaved improperly.
"Maybe all of us, all three groups if you will, need to stop yelling and listen a little bit and then talk," King said. "I'm not sure where the investigation is going to end -- but hopefully it's informative and calming."
Clark, reached by telephone, said selectmen voted to give Town Counsel David Jenkins control of the investigation, and that he would not immediately comment.
"Out of respect for all of the people involved, and to maintain the integrity of the investigation, I will not say anything until the investigation is over," Clark said.