Town official backs outside probe of allegations against Williamstown police chief

The Williamstown Police Department on Simonds Road in Williamstown.

WILLIAMSTOWN — The head of Williamstown's top board backs an independent review of allegations of racism and sexual harassment in the community's police department, the same action sought this week by the Williams College president, another town board and private citizens.

Though the Select Board has not taken that step, Jane Patton, its chairwoman, told members of another committee Wednesday that she, too, wants an outside probe of assertions in the Aug. 12 federal lawsuit filed by Sgt. Scott McGowan, a longtime member of the local police force.

McGowan alleges he and others were subjected to a hostile work environment in the department that included unwanted sexual touching, use of racist epithets and demeaning remarks.

McGowan, who remains employed by the force, alleges repeated sexual touching more than a decade ago by Chief Kyle Johnson, affecting him and others, and then retaliation for speaking out. The chief has declined to comment, citing advice of his lawyer.

Aside from a statement Tuesday, town officials have not commented on the complaint. Patton's remarks Wednesday to members of the Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee, on which she sits, appear to be her fullest public accounting of how officials are responding.

She made clear she wants the facts established. "It will be impartial. It will be independent," Patton said of the review she envisions. "I am unequivocally committed to that and will not participate in anything less."

On Friday afternoon, a group of residents plans to march to the police station to dramatize their concerns about public safety, in light of the allegations.

Panel's call

The DIRE committee passed a resolution Monday calling for an impartial look at McGowan's allegations, which members said have caused unrest in town and shaken public trust in policing.

Mohammed Memfis, who chairs the DIRE committee, said at his group's session Monday it has received "tons" of emails asking for an outside review. That same day, Maud S. Mandel, the Williams president, wrote to the Select Board calling for "a prompt, full and impartial investigation of recent allegations."

"Such an investigation is badly needed," Mandel wrote. "Along with the finding of fact, it will serve as a necessary first step to rebuild trust and assure everyone that our police force prioritizes their safety, regardless of who they are."

Patton said in an interview Thursday her board sent Mandel a copy of its Tuesday statement, which promised "a thorough review of the allegations and the responses by town personnel."

Though she stressed to fellow members of DIRE she was speaking only for herself, Patton went further in saying that review needed to be done by a third party with no ties to the town, a defendant in the suit.

Patton declined to say Thursday, before entering the Select Board's second private session this week on the matter, where the board stood on the timing of releasing information.

She said Chief Johnson, targeted by most of McGowan's claims, remains employed. And she said Town Manager Jason Hoch, a co-defendant in the lawsuit, has not been asked "at this time" to recuse himself from involvement with the police department.

Hoch also spoke Wednesday with DIRE members, who gathered by video conference. A recording of that session is available at Willinet.org.

Andrew Art, a member of the committee, told Hoch that McGowan's account of harassment inside the department shook the public's faith. "There are people who do not feel safe because of these allegations," he said.

"We're all disturbed. We're all upset," added member Jeffrey Johnson. "There are deep concerns."

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Hoch conceded that the complaint paints a bad picture, but did not call it a fair or accurate one. He said it is unfortunate that residents are not yet able to know what is or isn't a supported allegation.

"I understand how reading that feels, absolutely," he told DIRE members, speaking of the complaint. "I understand what that looks like, the questions it raises. That's not the community we want to be."

Hoch said he could not address specific allegations. The complaint accuses Hoch of not acting on reports of misconduct on the force to spare the community embarrassment.

"What is reflected there is not the Jason Hoch that I believe I am and try to be," he said. "It certainly is not who I want to be."

Muzzled at meeting

On Tuesday, when residents gathered for Town Meeting, a citizen rose and attempted to ask officials about steps they'd taken about the complaint.

That resident, Bill Densmore, was ruled out of order by the moderator and told the question could be addressed later. Densmore says he was never given that chance.

"It seems it's not appropriate to ask the town manager," Densmore said. "It wasn't my desire to make an issue out of it."

In his view, the town's reputation is diminished, the opposite of the outcome the complaint says Hoch sought by not acting. Densmore calls for officials to say more now.

"For them to say nothing really damages the reputation of the town," he said.

On Friday at 5:30 p.m., Margot Besnard of Williamstown will join with co-sponsor Jessica Dils to march with others from Field Park to the police station.

Besnard said she and others who meet weekly to discuss racial justice and police reform want answers. "When we found out about the lawsuit we started speaking about what action we wanted town leaders to take," she said. "We do have issues of racial justice and police reform on a local level."

Besnard said she has invited Johnson to speak to the group. "I would like to hear him explain what's going on. There's something not OK with the Williamstown Police Department and we expect our public safety officials to have answers."

In its statement Tuesday, the Select Board said it is "working to understand the full story."

"Like the rest of our community, the Select Board of Williamstown is very disturbed by the allegations," the statement said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.