A large, supportive crowd of more than 100 uniformed police -- chiefs and sergeants and officers from every town on the East End to as far away as Amityville -- filled the meeting room at Southampton Town Hall Thursday and flowed into the hall, where a white cake sat on a table.
"Congratulations, Chief Pearce," was all it read. But the gesture spoke volumes.
Robert Pearce, 56, a 32-year veteran of the town police department, had just been officially sworn in as the town's police chief, ending more than a year of controversy after a divided town board initially named a department outsider -- former Southampton Village Police Chief William Wilson Jr. -- to run the department. Wilson resigned for unspecified reasons effective Dec. 1.
Pearce, one of the original candidates for the job, had the unanimous support of the town board. And, town officials said, they expect a smooth transition as he formally takes over the largest police force on the East End, with more than 100 officers.
Pearce, a captain, had been acting chief since Wilson announced his resignation last month. He has run emergency operations dealing with the impact of superstorm Sandy, along with his other duties.
The Southampton Town Police chief's annual salary is $166,661, and the total compensation package -- including benefits -- is $234,168.
Unlike Wilson, Pearce has decades of experience working with other police agencies on a variety of issues. "He'll do a good job," predicted East Hampton Town Police Chief Edward V. Ecker Jr.
Still unresolved by the appointment is the investigation of the town police force by the Suffolk County district attorney's office, a probe that came to light in May when investigators served subpoenas on the Southampton town clerk and seized boxes of records relating to police department activities and investigations.
About a third of the records have been returned to the town, and district attorney spokesman Bob Clifford declined to comment on how long it will take to complete the probe, or what precisely is being examined. "I can't comment on an ongoing investigation," he said.
Meanwhile, a modest but grateful Pearce predicted it could take six months or so to put his own stamp on the police force.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said she was confident in Pearce's ability to run the department, and said the town board will have no role in picking his executive officer. "He's on his own," she said.