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Northfield police chief leaves department

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NORTHFIELD — Police Chief Leonard Crossman Jr. turned in his badge Thursday, and handed the department over to his staff sergeant.

“I haven’t caught up with the reality that I’m not coming back tomorrow,” said Crossman on his last day as chief.

Though he decided in October that he wouldn’t renew his three-year contract, Crossman did anything but take it easy for his final months on the job.

“I’ve been working right down to the wire, trying to finish up everything that needs to get done,” said Crossman Thursday.

That’s included preparing the department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, writing the department’s entry for the 2012 annual town report, coming up with a long-range capital expenditure plan and getting his two full-time officers ready for the transition.

Crossman, 33, was hired as Northfield’s chief in January of 2010. Though he planned to lead the department until he was ready to retire, life got in the way. He’s had to undergo two corrective ankle surgeries in the past year, both leaving him desk-bound as he recovered. This conflicted with his job description, which called for a “working chief,” who patrols and responds to calls in addition to running the department.

In October, with his second surgery looming, he told the Selectboard he may never be able to return to full duty, and would not seek renewal to a job he couldn’t fulfill.

Knowing that he was on his way out, he began to get his house in order, wrapping up projects he’d started, and trying not to leave loose ends for his replacement.

He had to fight to stay on for the last three months, as several residents asked the Selectboard to ask that Crossman be cut loose before his contract expired if he couldn’t do the job of a working chief.

“It would have been difficult if I had to walk away at that point,” he said. The board decided to allow Crossman to work 20 hours per week as he recovered from surgery.

This gave him a chance to plan the transition, and train his two full-time officers to take on extra duties.

Tuesday, he presented the Selectboard with the next fiscal year’s budget and a 10-year capital expense plan for the department.

His dedication to the job and the bonds he felt were evident in his diction at the meeting. Though he wouldn’t be there when the new budget took effect or the 10-year plan was implemented, he continued to refer to Northfield Police as “we,” and “us.”

Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Wright and board member Jack Spanbauer issued a letter thanking Crossman for his high standards of professionalism, advocating for public safety, developing a long-term vision for the police department, and providing a friendly police presence in the schools and community.

“It’s Northfield’s loss,” Spanbauer told Crossman.

Wright and Spanbauer have stood up for the chief, and repeatedly said they thought he was doing a good job, while board member Dan Gray has advocated for a group of residents that disagreed.

Gray decided not to sign Crossman’s thank-you letter.

Moving forward

Staff Sgt. Robert Leighton has been offered the position of acting chief, but will serve as officer in charge until contract negotiations are completed.

Leighton has been with the Northfield Police Department for 25 years.

Crossman believes the department will be in good hands with Leighton.

“Rob and (officer Scott Minckler) have really stepped up to the plate,” he said. “Scott has been assuming the sergeant’s role, and Rob has been picking up the responsibilities of chief.”

One advantage of Leighton is his 20-plus years as a Northfield resident, said Crossman.

“Rob has a good understanding of the town,” said Crossman. “He’s also very knowledgeable about law enforcement. He knows the job in and out, and he’s a great supervisor. Now, he just needs to learn the administrative side.”

The Selectboard is still considering its options for finding a permanent chief. Before Crossman was hired, the town formed a search committee, and enlisted the help of outside law enforcement professionals.

This time, the board has looked into using a consultant to find candidates, for a more objective approach. The Selectboard has also discussed the possibility of promoting from within, without a search process.

Crossman said both approaches have their strong points. An outside firm would be able to make impartial decisions and recommendations, he said, but it helps to have community leaders who know the town well involved in the process. Bringing in outside law enforcement professionals is a good idea, too, he said, because they offer an insider’s perspective, and can use their law enforcement knowledge to help them evaluate candidates.

Crossman isn’t quite sure where he’ll end up in the long run, but he’s got plans for the short-term.

“I’ve taken a job in Athol, providing administrative support to the police department,” he said. “I won’t be an officer, but I’ll be doing a lot of the things I do here.”

He’s already started, and enjoys it so far, especially the commute.

“It’s only 10 minutes from my house in Orange, and I’ve been able to bring the girls to school every day,” he said.

He will also be attending law school at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover starting Jan. 22, he said. “I’m excited to start something new.”

He said he probably won’t end up becoming a lawyer, but plans to explore other law-related fields. He said he also wouldn’t mind teaching criminal justice.

He said he’s always had an interest in teaching. His father was a state trooper, and his mother taught school. Both made an impression, and he said he’s drawn on both disciplines as chief.

Although small towns foster a great sense of community, they also come with challenges, he said.

“We always want to provide 100 percent service,” he said. “But sometimes, with the budget, you can only provide 80 percent coverage, and have to hope good fortune gets you the rest of the way.”

Though it hasn’t always been easy to be the chief, there’s one memory that will always make Crossman smile.

“I was delivering the Easter bunny to the elementary school, and you could tell people were looking, thinking ‘did I really just see the Easter bunny in a police car?’” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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