WILLIAMSTOWN — Police Chief Kyle Johnson has resigned his post, according to an announcement made at Monday night’s remote Select Board meeting.
Johnson’s last day was Monday.
Lt. Michael Ziemba will serve as interim chief until a search concludes. Officials hope to have a search for a permanent chief completed by late spring.
Johnson has been under heavy criticism from community members after some behaviors on his part came to light as part of a lawsuit this summer. The civil suit was filed by a department employee who alleged sexual and racial harassment in the workplace involving the chief and others.
Then it came to light that, under his watch, one of his officers was investigated and disciplined by the Massachusetts State Police for sexual assault but wasn’t fired.
The announcement was made at the Select Board meeting by Town Manager Jason Hoch, who noted that when the controversy began over the summer, he, the Select Board and the chief drew up a separation agreement. They decided after some thought to put that on hold because the chief committed to do the work needed to earn back the trust of the community.
But, as time went on, Hoch said, “it became increasingly clear that despite that commitment, the chief’s continued presence in the department would be an obstacle to genuinely engaging in a constructive healing process between the community and its Police Department.”
Hoch said the chief took some time off over the Thanksgiving holiday to “reflect on next steps.”
Upon his return last week, he met with Hoch.
“He agreed that for the health of the department, and the health of the community, that we should revisit the separation from town service,” Hoch said. “Today is his last day as the police chief in Williamstown.”
In mid-November. the chief apologized to the community, but it did little to salve the wounds felt in the community.
“I’ve been honored to serve as a Williamstown Police officer since 1992 and police chief since 2004,” Johnson said during the board’s Nov. 9 meeting. “I am proud of my service in this community, yet also deeply regret some past incidents that have caused me embarrassment and caused distrust among members of the community and beyond.”
The allegations came out as part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in August by Williamstown Police Sgt. Scott McGowan. The suit maintains that McGowan was retaliated against for decrying racial and sexual harassment in the department by the police chief.
The suit asserts that McGowan was denied a promotion to lieutenant as a result. He is seeking compensation for the pay he lost when he wasn’t promoted, as well as legal and court fees, and punitive damages.
The harassment charges refer to incidents more than a decade ago in which McGowan charges that Johnson, on occasion, rubbed his groin on the arms or hands of employees, that he made jokes at the expense of a Black officer, and that a dispatcher used a racist epithet in the presence of that officer, who was giving a tour of the station to a Black college student.
The allegations raised a furor in the community, with calls for Johnson and Hoch, who oversees the chief, to be placed on administrative leave and for an independent investigation of the charges.
During Monday’s meeting, Hoch made a point to highlight Johnson’s service and dedication to the department and the town, and the forthrightness and honesty he has displayed during the past few months of turmoil.
Hoch said the town will begin the search process by convening a number of groups to discuss the criteria, character and credentials they will use in seeking a new chief. He speculated that they could start to see candidate applications in the early spring, although he said there is not a timetable as of yet.
“This is important,” he said. “Getting it done right is better than getting it done fast.”