WILLIAMSTOWN — Despite calls for the Select Board to place Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch on paid administrative leave, the board says it will focus for now on an independent review of police department policies and procedures, and an audit of the town’s personnel policies.
But both Johnson and Hoch remain on the job.
After a recent statement by the Select Board, local residents continue to say the town isn't doing enough to respond to allegations of sexual and racial harassment at the Williamstown Police Department,
The allegations came as part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in August by Williamstown Police Sgt. Scott McGowan. The suit maintains McGowan was retaliated against for decrying racial and sexual harassment in the department by Johnson, the 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, lawyer and court fees, and punitive damages.
The harassment charges refer to incidents in 2007 when McGowan charges that Johnson on occasion rubbed his groin on the arms or hands of employees and that he made jokes at the expense of a Black officer. He also says 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.
All of this came out at the height of the national wave of protests sparked by killings of unarmed Black people by police officers. It had also sparked a local movement in Williamstown that resulted in the appointment of a new panel — the Diversity, Inclusivity and Racial Equity Committee — in an effort to identify and rectify systemic racism in local statutes.
When the lawsuit’s allegations came out, the DIRE committee and its supporters felt a new urgency in their mission, and calls for administrative leaves for Johnson and Hoch grew quickly.
The Select Board met in executive session several times, and then on Sept. 28 released a statement in response to “the litigation and community concerns.”
In the statement, the board says it is searching for an “appropriate consultant” to review policies of the police department, and is in talks with three firms to conduct a separate review of the human resources policies for the town.
They have also authorized increased employee awareness training sessions, and that those in supervisory positions have already completed training to avoid discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
The statement notes that there will be no change in the town manager’s position or duties.
“This was thoughtfully considered and involved extensive discussion and reflection between the board and the town manager,” the statement says. “The Select Board has resolved to learn from this matter and to take the steps to minimize any recurrences.”
The letter says steps taken will improve communication and “provide a framework moving forward that better suits the needs of all residents in our community … We ask that town residents support this effort and give it a fair chance to succeed.”
Bilal Ansari, a member of the DIRE committee, said there is ample evidence the police department is in need of a serious review. Incidents of possible profiling by town police officers reported by residents, an officer of color transferring out due to the toxic work environment, as well as the incidents brought out in the lawsuit point to a culture in the department that needs to be re-cast, panel members believe.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington released a list of police officers who should not be considered credible courtroom witnesses in criminal trails because of documented wrongdoing or misconduct in an effort to protect the rights of defendants. One of them is Williamstown Police Officer Craig Eichhammer, who was identified in the McGowan lawsuit.
Harrington did not disclose the reasoning behind his inclusion on the list, and Chief Johnson declined to comment.
Ansari noted that in the complaint McGowan filed in late 2019 with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Eichhammer is identified as having been disciplined for sexual harassment of a female resident of the town in 2011, but not terminated.
The fact that Hoch did not report the original personnel complaint filed to the Select Board “perpetuates the false idea that there is no racism in town,” Ansari said. “They dismiss it as a communication failure.”
And the fact that the dispatcher who uttered the racist epithet to a co-worker and a guest is still on the job indicates that the Select Board has missed the point, he said, and should is protecting the status quo.
A variety of town residents have also sought an independent probe into the allegations of harassment inside the police department.
Williams College President Maud Mandel asked for an independent investigation a few days after the lawsuit was filed Aug. 12.
“I write, as Williams College president, to ask that you commission a prompt, full and impartial investigation of recent allegations regarding racism and sexual misconduct within the Williamstown Police Department,” Mandel wrote Aug. 17. “Such an investigation is badly needed. Along with findings 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.”
Residents have also been speaking out about their dissatisfaction with the actions of the Select Board.
Members of the recently formed Williamstown Racial Justice Police Reform Group aren’t concerned about the litigation process, but insist the allegations in the lawsuit should be investigated by an independent party. They agree that personnel policies and protocols should be updated, but the allegations should be probed separate from the lawsuit.
And to ensure impartiality, the chief and town manager should be on paid leave until the probe is complete, they say. They say it's unacceptable to have police department staff members who have been disciplined for sexual assault or have used racially derogatory terms at work remain on the job.
“There is no room for officers like that in our police department when civil rights are at risk every day,” said group member Jessica Dils.
“Women have told me they feel unsafe,” said Arlene Kirsch, another group member. “People of color have said they feel unsafe. I myself feel unsafe. I’m having a hard time sleeping.”
Group member Peggy Kern said that when a Williamstown resident has to call the police, there should be a “baseline of trust,” but that it has been compromised.
“This is just beyond anything I could have personally envisioned,” she said. “It is 100 percent unacceptable.”