Oak Bluffs chief chats about change
And looks for ways to 'do some good'
Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake has an eye on civil rights. Photo by Ralph Stewart
During his teenage years, Erik Blake used to loiter with friends on Circuit Avenue, waiting for his mother to pick him up after a night at the local game room. Today, after watching Oak Bluffs grow and change with the times, he is the top law enforcement official in the town. A lifelong Islander, the Oak Bluffs chief of police is constantly looking for ways to improve the town to which he has an emotional connection.
While keeping order in Oak Bluffs is his main job, Chief Blake is also reaching out to make a contribution on the international scene, accepting an appointment to the civil rights committee, a subcommittee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The committee works to create the best practices and give guidance and opinions to the membership about civil rights issues.
"I just thought, what a great place to do some good," Chief Blake said of the committee.
Chief Blake grew up in West Tisbury and began his career with the Oak Bluffs police force when he was eighteen.
"I was one of those guys out there with the chalk and no gun, just directing the traffic," he said, noting that Peter Williamson, father of his current lieutenant, Timothy Williamson, first hired him. "I'm still grateful to that man for giving me a chance."
After attending Cape Cod Community College for a few years, Chief Blake was hired as a full-time patrolman in Oak Bluffs. He worked in that capacity throughout the 1990's, until he was promoted to sergeant in 2000. He was named acting lieutenant when the lieutenant at the time took medical leave, and in 2003 he was named Chief, after Joseph Carter left the post. Chief Blake is currently working to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western New England College in Springfield.
Sitting amid half-full boxes and various packing materials, Chief Blake spoke with a Times reporter recently about the challenges and rewards of his job. The Oak Bluffs police department is in the middle of expanding its office into the old town hall, where the department members will have more room and additional facilities.
Speaking with pride, Chief Blake said working in Oak Bluffs gives him an intimate connection with community members. "I talk to chiefs around the country and some chiefs from bigger departments have civilian review boards, which is a major thing in major cities. I have a civilian review board every other Tuesday night," he laughed, referring to the bi-weekly selectman's meetings he regularly attends. "I love this job because in our capacity it's an amazing place to do everything that encompasses being a police officer."
He is also part of a community that is hard to avoid, even when running mundane errands. "That's part of taking this job," Chief Blake said. "People actually see you at the grocery store and the next few days say, hey, how was the chicken? That's a true story." Chief Blake said he likes to recall that incident when illustrating what it is like to live and work on a small Island.
Chief Blake is also raising a family on Martha's Vineyard. He and his wife Lynn have a 19-month-old son, Parker. His sister and mother live on the Island as well.
A member of the 1986 Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduating class, Chief Blake said friends and former classmates still tease him about his career choice. In his high school yearbook, Chief Blake wrote that his ambition was to become a State Police Trooper. After taking a similar, yet decidedly different career path, the Chief said he has no regrets.
"There are only 14 full-time members," Chief Blake said of the Oak Bluffs force. "So you kind of know everybody fairly intimately, and that's one of the things I love about it. I try to be as transparent as possible and discuss my ideas as openly as possible. It's great to be involved in the day-to-day activities of the police department."
For a small police department, Oak Bluffs has had a number of significant coups. In January of 2003 the department gained accreditation from the state, joining only two other towns on Cape Cod to have that distinction.
Receiving state accreditation means the Oak Bluffs police force complies with 151 set standards. Chief Blake said while it is a feather in his cap to succeed in the accreditation process, it also helps the town in a myriad of ways.
"Towns that are accredited are less likely to be losers in a civil lawsuit, because most of the lawsuits have to do with your policies and standards," he said.
Additionally, it provides a framework from which the officers can work. Standards outline how much training is appropriate for various positions, for example, and also cover officer safety, liability, and procedures for shooting, vehicle pursuit, and when to wear a safety vest, among others.
The department has also had smaller accomplishments he considers just as significant, like when he gathered neighbors and downtown business owners this summer to talk about the ongoing noise issue. "Out of all the things I've done career wise, I thought that was pretty decent," he said of the meeting, which took place in August at the Oyster Bar Grill. As one of only two wet towns on the Island, the Oak Bluffs police force has to deal with all the issues associated with hosting drinking establishments.
Chief Blake said the community service assignments handed out for juvenile offenders are often creative and designed to teach a lesson. This summer a group of teenagers were found intoxicated on State Beach, where they had ripped down a street sign. When they were apprehended, they proceeded to vomit in the prisoner transport vehicle.
"They pled out to cleaning our cars and paying restitution for the sign," Chief Blake said of the innovative penalty. "They didn't like, with a hangover, cleaning the cars for four hours - especially the one with the vomit in it. It's not always death row tactics. It's about what's going to work best for what your community's made up of."
The bigger picture
A year ago last month, Chief Blake was appointed to the civil rights committee within the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Former Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter was recently sworn in as president of the IACP. He serves as chief of police for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
"It may seem like a dry subject to people, but we deal with the constitution every single step we take. Is it constitutionally OK for us to walk up and say hello to you? Does that constitute a threshold inquiry or a probable cause inquiry?" Chief Blake said, illustrating how civil rights issues influence a police officer's every move. "It's so intertwined in everything we do. It's not just the big Rodney King civil rights abuses, it's about day to day. How do you ensure that your police officers are constantly aware of civil rights issues?"
The committee meets twice a year, once at the annual IACP conference in the fall, and a second time in the spring. They give advice to other committees on varying issues of concern, and choose departments that have worked over and above in the area of civil rights to receive an award. Last year, a department in Florida was recognized for their part in dismantling an Aryan Nation ring at a local high school, while a department in India was praised for the creation of an escort service for women in refugee camps. They get many submissions each year, and have to sort through them to decide which departments are most worthy. "Anyone that gets it really has done an amazing job, either in education or prevention or enforcement for civil rights issues," Chief Blake said.
A 30-year chief?
While Chief Blake said the era of the 30-year chief is all but over, he said it would take something extraordinary for him to leave Oak Bluffs. "Everyone should always be looking to either better themselves or look for something that's different," he said. "It doesn't mean you have to take it, but you can't always operate inside a vacuum."
Chief Blake said the main concerns of the town - drunk driving, speeding and drug use - are foremost on his mind, but that keeping an even, peaceful atmosphere within the community is essential. "It's not about reinventing the wheel," Chief Blake said. "It's about supporting those things that are working."