WILLIAMSTOWN — Police Chief Kyle Johnson apologized to the community Monday night for past failings and promised to do better as head of the town’s Police Department.
“I will make it a priority to rebuild strained relationships, and build new relationships with individuals and the communities as a whole,” he said during the regular Select Board meeting.
Johnson then explained that a member of the department has been placed on administrative leave for posting inappropriate comments on Facebook, possibly while on duty.
But, first, Johnson apologized to the community as a whole for behaviors on his part that 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.
“I’ve been honored to serve as a Williamstown Police officer since 1992 and police chief since 2004,” Johnson said during the board’s meeting, held via Zoom. “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.”
Johnson said that while he demands professionalism of himself and by members of the department, “I’ve let you down with some poor judgment early on in my tenure as chief by tolerating and participating in behaviors that never should have occurred in the workplace. For this, I am truly sorry, and I apologize to the community, to you, the Select Board, to my colleagues in the Police Department and to all town employees.”
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 Police 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 Town Manager Jason Hoch, who oversees the chief, to be placed on administrative leave and for an independent investigation of the charges.
Shortly thereafter, a Brady list was released by Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington. The list provides the names of police officers who should not be considered credible courtroom witnesses in criminal trails because of documented wrongdoing or misconduct.
Williamstown Police Officer Craig Eichhammer was the only Williamstown officer on the list.
In a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, McGowan said Eichhammer had been disciplined, but not terminated, for sexual aggression toward a female resident of the town in 2011.
During his statement, Johnson said he has learned from this lesson, and is committed to continue learning.
“I’m humbled to be allowed to continue in the role as police chief,” he said. “I appreciate that building trust and confidence will take time and patience, but I’m committed to being a part of making Williamstown a better and a safer place for everyone in the future. And I thank you for the opportunity tonight to get this statement out.”
Then Johnson spoke of the Facebook incident involving a department employee. Without getting into any details, the chief said the Facebook posts were concerning to him, and were inappropriate.
He noted that the social media activity seemed to be a violation of department policy that calls for officers to conduct themselves on and off duty in an appropriate and respectful manner — in ways that do not reflect poorly on the department or the community.
He said the investigation is ongoing, and that the town manager likely would have a full report Tuesday.
After he finished his statement, members of the community were permitted to address the chief. There were pointed comments and questions.
“What do you say to [the] people of Williamstown who have been sexually assaulted? What do you say to people of color who are fearful of calling the police for help because of what you’ve done?” one woman asked.
Johnson responded that he understand he has to work hard to rebuild trust in town, and that he hopes no one ever will hesitate to call police when they need help.
The woman continued by wondering why Johnson hasn’t voluntarily resigned in favor of a new chief, someone who hasn’t caused so much distrust in the community.
“Why not step aside?” she asked.
“It’s a valid question,” Johnson replied. He again noted the length of his service in town. He said it is frustrating not to be able to fully discuss the past issues, because he is constrained by what he can say because of the ongoing litigation.
But, he also pointed out that he has a great deal of experience and knowledge of the town that can be valuable.
Another woman also went straight to the point.
“I am so disappointed — there were so many of us that were depending on you,” she said.