WILLIAMSTOWN — Williamstown will not seek an outside probe of a police sergeant's claims of racial bias, sexual harassment and retaliation inside the Williamstown Police Department, despite calls to do so by residents and a town board.
That word came Thursday, in a statement from town officials clearly aggrieved by their inability to answer pressing public questions while defending against a newly filed lawsuit.
The situation, the Select Board said, "puts our community in a difficult position of us asking you to trust that we are taking this seriously, without being able to witness our ongoing discussions or having the benefit of the same information."
But, the board did release a redacted copy of its response to the complaint that Sgt. Scott McGowan filed last year with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
In that document, Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch respond to McGowan's allegations, which are largely — but not entirely — the same as those contained in the suit filed this month in U.S. District Court.
Among other things, McGowan claims that Johnson sexually assaulted male and female officers by repeatedly rubbing his groin against them. The complaint cites racially discriminatory actions by Johnson and others, including use of derogatory language and harassment of a Black officer.
And it accuses Johnson of passing over McGowan for promotion as retaliation for flagging workplace harassment and pressing for reforms.
"Recognizing that, at this point, the allegations in Sgt. McGowan's complaint are just that — allegations — they nonetheless depict the Police Department and the Town Administration in a way that raises genuine questions or doubts about the Town's commitment to diversity, inclusion, and racial equity," the statement said.
Indeed, a group of residents concerned about the allegations marched Aug. 21 to the police station, seeking answers and accountability.
Hoch and Johnson have declined to comment on McGowan's lawsuit. That silence, the board acknowledged in its statement, leaves a gap of information.
In the MCAD document released by the town, Johnson denies that he sexually assaulted McGowan or others. But, the response describes a time when "pranks" were common in what Johnson now sees as part of "unprofessional and juvenile locker room behavior."
Further, the town's response denies that the chief retaliated against McGowan for speaking up on behalf of victims of sexual or racial harassment within the department. And Johnson denies, in the response, that he mocked a Black officer on the force, as McGowan contends. "Chief Johnson states that the African-American police officer never complained to him that any of his conduct was in any way offensive."
Along with releasing its response to the MCAD complaint, the board announced that Williamstown will tap a consultant to review current police practices, making sure that they are up to date and "in line with the board's expectations."
The town also will examine how it manages its employees and will ensure that programs designed to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace are provided to all town workers, including elected officials.
In another effort, the board said it will work with defense counsel handling the lawsuit to make sure members are aware of new information that might arise through the course of litigation. "Although we cannot share all of this information with the community because of the pending litigation, these updates will inform the Board in its strategy to mitigate any practice of bias, harassment, or discrimination by members of the Town government, including the Police Department."Officials are taking these steps, the board said, "to identify those areas where we might do better, as a governmental organization and employer," the statement said. "We continue to listen and learn from the many diverse voices in our community about how we can improve."
In its statement, the board said it is researching claims in McGowan's lawsuit that do not appear in the MCAD complaint. The board said that its response will be presented in the course of the new litigation.
Members of the board have held three executive sessions so far on the litigation and plan another for 9 a.m. Monday. The panel also will convene that day, at 7 p.m. The night's agenda begins with an "opening statement." The agenda also lists a petitioner's request for the board to receive "public comment on Police issues."
The board said that because of McGowan's federal lawsuit, filed Aug. 12, it cannot order an outside review of the allegations, most of which concern Johnson.
Jane Patton, the board chairwoman, said Thursday that her panel "appreciates" the work of the town's Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee, which passed a resolution last week calling for an outside probe of McGowan's claims. Patton sits on that committee and expressed support at a meeting Aug. 19 for conducting an independent investigation.
By releasing the MCAD document, the board said it was fulfilling a promise to provide residents with more information than is contained in the sergeant's lawsuit.
But, several dozen passages in the MCAD response are blacked out. The board said it made redactions in the document to protect the privacy of people named and after hearing from McGowan's lawyer, Boston attorney David A. Russcol, that he opposed any "negative information, allegations, or implications about Mr. McGowan."
Making public any such material, the board says Russcol warned, would be viewed "as further evidence of unlawful retaliation."
Substantial areas are blacked out in a section of the response that narrates McGowan's history with the department, including what appears to be an explanation of a gap in his service on the force up to December 2001. All that survives is a statement noting that the chief reprimanded McGowan "on a handful of occasions."
The MCAD complaint was withdrawn by McGowan and Russcol before the commission's investigators reached any conclusion about the merits of the sergeant's claims, as a prelude to filing the civil complaint with the court.
For the most part, Johnson and Hoch dispute McGowan's assertions in the MCAD complaint.
But, the response acknowledges that one situation described in the filing, and in the lawsuit, did occur, though they differ on the outcome.
In his MCAD complaint, McGowan said that, in 2014, a Black student from Williams College was present in the station when a dispatcher shouted an anti-Black epithet that could be heard widely. McGowan's complaint says Johnson was aware of the situation but took no disciplinary action.
In the town's MCAD response, Johnson and Hoch said "the dispatcher who made the offensive remark was appropriately disciplined."
Russcol, McGowan’s attorney, said his client disputes “many aspects” of the town’s statement and “looks forward to having his case heard in court on the merits.”
Russcol said in an email that he believes the town’s statement is a public acknowledgement that they have “admitted the truth of several key facts in the Complaint. It is ironic that they continue to describe them as merely allegations.”
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.