DRACUT — A police chief from a small North Shore community has emerged as the top candidate to lead the town’s embattled Police Department.

Russell Stevens, the police chief in Hamilton, an affluent North Shore community with a population of 7,764, finished first in the just-completed assessment center, in which candidates were tested, engaged in role playing and were required to write an essay.

Stevens was followed by Hooksett, N.H., Police Chief Peter Bartlett; tied for third were Richard Bailey, assistant director at Public Safety Strategies Group LLC, a West Townsend-based law enforcement consulting agency, and Peabody police Capt. Scott Richards.

Town Manager James Duggan received the list of qualified candidates from the state Civil Service Commission late Thursday. State law requires Duggan to select one of the top three candidates or, in this case, four candidates.

“I am encouraged and pleased with the process,” Duggan said Friday. “I feel the most qualified candidates rose to the top in a large field.”

The two in-house candidates, Deputies Stephen Chaput and David Chartrand, finished fifth and 14th, respectively. Unless a candidate who finished outside of the top three spots appeals to the commission, it’s a certainty the town’s next chief will be from outside Greater Lowell.

Duggan hopes to begin interviews next week, and make a selection soon thereafter. His goal is to have a new permanent police chief in place by May 1.

“Time is of the essence,” said Duggan. “It’s important for the department but more importantly for the community at large.”

Neil Ouellette is serving as interim chief, being appointed last summer following the retirement of long-time Chief Kevin Richardson.

Earlier this winter, Duggan posted the police chief’s job with a salary of around $155,000. The response was disappointing: two applicants, one from New Hampshire, the other from Texas.

Duggan reposted the position at up to $170,000, and about 30 law-enforcement officials applied.

The strong response to the job posting follows a rough year for the DPD:

* An independent consultancy blasted the department’s leadership and atmosphere, top-ranking officers have filed grievances against each other, the deputy chief, Chartrand, was suspended for two weeks, and a long-time Dracut detective has sued the town alleging that he was retaliated against for bringing to light criminal accusations against two of his fellow officers.

* Last June, police officers and their families packed Town Meeting and helped reject a proposal from Duggan that would have taken the chief’s position out of the Civil Service system, giving the town more power over the police chief.

* Earlier this week, The Sun reported Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan is currently reviewing all of the department’s pending case evidence. An independent audit in September raised concerns about the department’s handling of confiscated materials like money, drugs, and firearms.

A number of local officers completed the assessment center. Lowell Sgt. Steven O’Neill tied for fifth with Chaput; Lowell Capt. Timothy Crowley, also a candidate for deputy superintendent in Lowell, finished ninth.

Tiied with Chartrand in 14th was former Lowell Sgt. Thomas Fleming, who resigned from the Police Department in July 2014 amid a test-taking scandal; in 19th was Lowell Capt. James Hodgdon; in 20th was Lowell Lt. John Cullen. Joseph Roark, the current chief in Pelham, withdrew late in the process.

Follow Scott on Twitter @cscottlowellsun.