Oak Bluffs top cop talks shop

‘Coffee with the Chief’ gives residents the chance to chat with Chief Erik Blake.

Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake, right, and Sergeant Daniel Cassidy share a laugh at a "Coffee with the chief" gathering. – Stacey Rupolo

On a recent Friday morning, a dozen town residents gathered at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging (COA) for “Coffee with the Chief,” a monthly informal gathering with Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake that he started six months ago. Over the course of the hour, Chief Blake discussed a wide range of topics — legalized marijuana, distracted driving, mopeds, and the colors of the new cruisers. He knew many of the attendees by first name.

Chief Blake, starched and pressed, fresh from teaching a morning fitness class, was uncharacteristically bestubbled.

“It’s ‘No-Shave November,” he said. “We’re donating the money we save from not shaving to cancer research. So if you see one of our officers looking a little scruffy, that’s why.” No-Shave November is a national campaign to grow cancer awareness “by growing the hair which many cancer patients lose,” according to the no-shave.org website. “We normally have a strict no-beard policy, but I let my guard down, even though I’m itching like crazy,” he said.

Chief Blake said the department was supporting “No-Shave November” in large part to show support for one of their own, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.

Chief Blake told the gathering that newly promoted Sergeant Daniel Cassidy would be late because he was assisting with a “123 commitment,” a family involuntarily committing a loved one for drug and alcohol treatment. The topic provided a segue into the vote to legalize recreational marijuana in Massachusetts. It was the Friday before Election Day, and it was the dominant topic of the morning.

Chief Blake said he agreed with marijuana decriminalization, where possession of under an ounce results in a fine instead of an arrest, in large part so a youthful indiscretion wouldn’t handcuff a person’s options later in life.

He also agreed with the medical marijuana law in Massachusetts. “I have seen cases where a person has cancer and the only way they could eat and keep up their weight was to smoke marijuana. I have no absolutely problem with that,” he said.

However, he was squarely against Question 4, the ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. He said the increasing THC content in pot and the effect it has on young, developing brains concerns him. “We’re not doing a very good job as a society keeping alcohol out of young people’s hands. Why do we want to add another substance?” he said. “We need to do better with the stuff that’s already legal.”

Chief Blake said the technology to test drivers for marijuana intoxication is also lacking: “When you stop someone for driving under the influence of alcohol, there are field sobriety tests which have been scientifically proven to show someone’s over the legal limit. We don’t have that for marijuana.”

He also said conversations with police chiefs in Colorado, where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2014, have also informed his opinion.

“It was a horror show for police in Colorado when it was first legalized,” he said. “People are making hash oil out of marijuana, and the process is just as dangerous as cooking meth. In one county they had 14 house fires in a six-month period.”

Chief Blake disagreed that legalizing marijuana would cut the cartels out of the equation, and thereby reduce crime. “It’s one of the myths,” he said. “Who is going to supply it? If I won the application to open a marijuana dispensary, I can’t get a loan from a bank because it’s still federally prohibited. So where am I going to get the $300,000 to $400,000 in startup capital? Unless you’re independently wealthy, what are you going to do? Just because it’s legalized doesn’t mean it’s not still coming from the drug cartels.”

Although he was strongly against Question 4, Chief Blake said he wasn’t trying to sensationalize marijuana. “Do I think it’s a horrible drug and people who smoke it are going to waste their whole life? Of course not,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone who smoked a joint get up and want to fight me. But someone who’s downed a six-pack of beer wants to fight all the time.”

Three days before Massachusetts residents would vote to legalize recreational marijuana, Chief Blake appeared resigned that Question 4 would pass.

“We all knew this was coming. After they decriminalized it and passed medical marijuana, it was a matter of time,” he said.

On a lighter note, Chief Blake said new police cruisers will be on the road early next year, with a new color scheme that will be decided by townspeople. The car purchases were approved at town meeting in April. At that meeting, a number of people voiced complaints that the OBPD was too “militaristic,” and that the black and gray cruisers with tinted windows were too heavy-handed for their small Island town. In response, Chief Blake is opening the design of the new cruisers to public input. He’s starting next month with the sixth graders at the Oak Bluffs School: “We’re asking that they write about why the police are important to them, and let them have a hand in picking the styles.”

Mr. Blake said there will be four color schemes to choose from. “We’re not going to have pink polka-dotted cars,” he said.

Responding to a question from Peg Kelly, Chief Blake said that he did not agree with a current policy that allows violent felons to be transferred to the Dukes County Jail from off-Island. “If you do the crime here, do the time here. But why are we being picked to house a hardened gang member from Boston because he might get murdered in jail, with local people who are there for drinking and driving?” he said. “I think our next sheriff should take a really hard look at every single case and have a hard set of criteria, not just because someone wants to go [to jail] here. If their lives are in jeopardy, Chicago would be a better place.”

Addressing the moped issue, Chief Blake said he applauded Don Gregory, owner of Sun N’ Fun moped rentals, for recently forfeiting 40 moped licenses in exchange for 40 rental car licenses. “I would like to see a change in the bylaw so we can test the models they have,” he said, adding that mopeds rented here clearly exceed the state maximum speed of 30 miles an hour.

Moving forward, Chief Blake said that community outreach will continue to be a top priority, and the morning’s event was a small example of that. “We encourage our guys to get out, go to community events, and go to Little League games. We want people to say to them, ‘Why weren’t you at the game?’ instead of ‘Why are you here?’”

“I think it’s great for the community to put questions and concerns right out in the open,” Oak Bluffs resident Donna Joyce told The Times as the klatch concluded. “Problems don’t get solved behind closed doors. Even little things, like bikes on Circuit Avenue. It’s good to talk about it.”

The next coffee with the chief is Friday, Dec. 2, at 10 am in the Oak Bluffs COA building, 21 Wamsutta Avenue.