WILLIAMSTOWN — After filing a civil lawsuit in August, Sgt. Scott E. McGowan was hailed by some in Williamstown as a whistleblower unafraid to tell the truth about misconduct within the town’s Police Department.
Allegations in McGowan’s suit shook the department as well. For a different reason. Officers say they couldn’t believe McGowan accused others of conduct he exhibited himself, including, they allege, open and frequent use of an anti-Black epithet, as well as displays of sexual and racial harassment.
McGowan remains on paid administrative leave from his $76,000-a-year job, pending the town’s investigation of complaints about the sergeant detailed in a six-page letter to town officials from all nine full-time members of the Williamstown Police Department except McGowan and Lt. Michael Ziemba, the acting chief.
McGowan’s attorney calls the complaint an attempt at “character assassination” by officers who want to retaliate against the sergeant.
In the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Eagle, officers allege that McGowan engaged in the following conduct. The Eagle confirmed accounts in the complaint that are detailed in this story with at least two people with knowledge of the incidents.
• McGowan used the anti-Black epithet when referring to an officer of color, then told others that was allowable because he lived with that officer. Failure to adequately discipline an officer for use of that word within the department was one of McGowan’s key accusations against Police Chief Kyle Johnson, who resigned in December because of the lawsuit.
• After Johnson suspended a member of the department for use of the word, officers say McGowan “taunted” that employee when he returned from suspension, “asking him ‘Hey did you visit with any of your black “N” (word) friends while you were out for two weeks.’ ”
• McGowan stood behind a female officer and mimicked having sexual intercourse with her, the complaint says, while pretending to slap her buttocks. And he sat at a desk laughing when a male officer touched that same female officer’s breast. Those allegations were among the incidents confirmed by The Eagle.
• When introducing a departmental visitor to a female Hispanic officer, McGowan “referred to her by name and stated ‘She came over on a rubber tube and that when she saw the Statue of Liberty .. she said ‘I made it to America.’ ”
In McGowan’s lawsuit, which was withdrawn in December, one of the most notable allegations was that Johnson had, early in his time as chief about 15 years ago, engaged in “horseplay” by pushing his genitals, while fully dressed, up against officers. The complaint says that McGowan engaged in the same behavior. It also says that McGowan, in an apparently similar kind of horseplay, “Straddled the Department canine on the floor and pretended to have sex with her … .”
David A. Russcol, McGowan’s attorney, responded to the complaint’s top allegations against McGowan in an email to The Eagle. He said that McGowan denies all of the points outlined above and noted that the town has not provided his client with a copy of the complaint.
“It is no coincidence that these allegations have been brought up after Sgt. McGowan exposed the need for change in the Department through his protected court filings, and as the Town and the Department look for new leadership,” Russcol said. “Sgt. McGowan looks forward to a thorough investigation to clear his name.”
Town Manager Jason Hoch confirmed that the complaint, which was addressed to him and all five members of the Select Board, led him to ask Ziemba to place McGowan on administrative leave as of March 1, a status that is not considered disciplinary. The document has been referred to attorney Judy A. Levenson, whom the Select Board hired in February to conduct an investigation into operations of the Police Department.
Hoch said the scope of Levenson’s inquiry has been expanded. Given Russcol’s responses Tuesday, it appears that McGowan will contest each and every allegation related to his use of the anti-Black epithet, his conduct toward other officers, his role in sexual “horseplay” and other elements of the complaint.
“Sgt. McGowan does not use the N-word. Full stop,” Russcol said, in response to a question about the complaint’s allegation that the sergeant used the term often, including in reference to a friend. “He would not justify it because his use of that hateful word would never be justified. This did not happen.”
Russcol said McGowan denies pressing his genitals against co-workers. “This absolutely did not happen. Sgt. McGowan was a survivor of sexual assault even before former Chief Johnson engaged in this offensive and inappropriate behavior within the police department. He did not and would not do this,” Russcol said. McGowan also denies simulating sex with a female officer, or a canine.
“That would be totally inappropriate and disrespectful for any workplace, let alone a law enforcement agency,” the attorney said of the former allegation. He said McGowan “has never witnessed a male officer touching the breast of any female officer or civilian.”
And Russcol said that McGowan did not liken a Hispanic officer to an immigrant.
“Until he was placed on administrative leave, he carried out his supervisory responsibilities consistent with the expectations of the Williamstown Police Department,” Russcol said.
As The Eagle has reported, the complaint, signed “By the full time police officers of the Williamstown Police Department,” claims that McGowan’s behavior created a hostile work environment within the station and led them to notify the Select Board that they have no confidence in his ability as a police official.
“Since McGowan was made a Sergeant,” it says, “his abuse of power, narcissistic attitude toward fellow officers, and his bullying are more than any employee should have to endure.” Most of the officers who voted no-confidence in McGowan are below him in rank and, in some cases, report to him.
“McGowan stated in his (lawsuit) that he wants to make this a better Police Department,” the complaint says near the end. “In our unanimous opinion, Scott McGowan shouldn’t even be a police officer, let alone a sergeant.”
The officers say they waited to express their views on McGowan’s conduct out of concern that their statement would be viewed as an effort to punish him for taking legal action that cast the department in a bad light.
“Scott McGowan and a small group of people in town will try to claim that all of the above is sour grapes or retaliation from his filing a lawsuit,” the complaint says. “The fact is that this letter couldn’t have been submitted BECAUSE of the lawsuit and we agreed to wait until the lawsuit played out.”
The officers’ statement claims that McGowan’s presence within the department damages morale. It says he verbally berates fellow employees and expresses “utter disdain” for co-workers. McGowan has referred in emails to officers who work the night as the “third herd,” it says.
The complaint describes an incident on Jan. 1 of this year in which McGowan is said to have screamed at two officers over their handling of a call. The officers made verbal and written complaints to the acting chief about his behavior.
Before Johnson resigned, the complaint says, McGowan frequently belittled the chief and questioned his competence. McGowan “also made the statement that he would ‘burn this place to the ground and take everybody with it,’ ” the complaint says.
“He has made the statement: ‘When I take him out and I’m chief, we’re gonna do things different around here,’” the complaint says of McGowan, adding, “That sounds like somebody with an agenda, not an alleged whistle blower.”
Russcol, McGowan’s attorney, said his client does not remember a conversation in which he used the words that Johnson “does not know how to be chief.” However, Russcol said McGowan acknowledges reflecting at times on Johnson’s performance as chief. “He was not the only one; virtually every officer criticized Johnson’s performance as chief,” Russcol said.
In other passages, the complaint cites incidents that have been reported by The Eagle, including McGowan’s 1999 arrest in a domestic assault and battery case and a 2005 case in which Johnson, the former chief, said McGowan admitted to changing police records to conceal that he had pushed and spat upon a Williams College student. Through his attorney, McGowan has denied that he falsified the police log in that case.
The single-spaced complaint closes with a lament about the effect that McGowan has on the Police Department and says some officers “are afraid to even come to work when he is working.”
“Officers have not called or do not call McGowan for guidance or help for fear of him providing improper information to get them in trouble,” the complaint says. “This is based on how officers do not trust him and how he has treated everyone. This puts most officers in fear of working with him and caused some to look for other employment so as not to work with him … . Officers are afraid to sign their name to this letter for fear of what McGowan will do to an officer, family, or their home.”
“We feel apprehensive whenever he is around because we don’t know what he’ll do next,” the complaint says. “He has said and done one thing and writes emails spinning a whole new version which is not the truth. His retaliatory behavior has cost such a toll on morale in the department; it has not only affected us but our families, friends, dispatchers and even the Williamstown community.”