WILLIAMSTOWN — Officers and staff at the Williamstown Police Department say they believe efforts to address perceived racism in town hall and at the police department have created “an environment of hostility” toward police.
A letter Monday to the Select Board and to the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee says officers are being unfairly maligned.
“Since the creation of the town-appointed DIRE committee many weeks ago, the environment of hostility in Williamstown toward our Police Department has worsened – with the department and its officers being the targets of unfair and false allegations,” the letter reads. “This is an alarming trend that is not only damaging to Williamstown police officers and their families, but is simply not in the best interests of this community.”
The letter asks the Select Board to step in, help ease the tension and show that it supports the Police Department.
One member of the DIRE committee, Bilal Ansari, responded by saying any Williamstown police officer is welcome to come to the committee meetings, where their input would be welcome, but reiterated that there are some serious allegations regarding some members of the force that need to be dealt with.
The letter is signed by Williamstown Police Union President Brad Sacco, who wrote that its message is supported by “non-union and civilian members of the Williamstown Police Department.”
The letter says both the Select Board and the DIRE committee have created a “hostile environment” for police.
“It was understood initially that the DIRE’s mission was to be inclusion for all,” the letter says. “But in fact, the only thing the police department has experienced as a result of the committee’s work is exclusion, hostility and a disturbing sign that the Town of Williamstown no longer values its Police Department.”
“The professionals who make up the Williamstown Police have served the community well for decades,” the letter states.
Select Board Chairwoman Jane Patton declined to comment on the Sacco letter, as did Town Manager Jason Hoch.
The letter offers support for Hoch, who was named as a defendant in the Aug. 12 federal lawsuit that put the Williamstown Police Department in the spotlight.
“Your own support of our department, Town Manager Hoch, has not gone unnoticed. And we recognize that you also are not immune to or untouched by these unfair attacks,” it says.
The civil lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by Williamstown Police Sgt. Scott McGowan, maintains that McGowan was retaliated against for decrying racial and sexual harassment in the police department by Police Chief Kyle Johnson. 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 or around 2007 when McGowan alleges 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 Select Board faces calls, including by DIRE, to place Johnson and Hoch on paid administrative leave while an independent reviewer investigates the allegations. While the board said it will commission an independent review of police department policies and procedures, and an audit of the town’s personnel policies and protocols, it said last week it would not put Hoch on leave.
Hoch, Johnson and Patton have declined to comment due to the ongoing lawsuit.
“Our department is built on exceptional foundations of strong principle, service to the community and excellence in policing,” Sacco writes. “The professionals who make up the Williamstown Police have served the community well for decades.”
Sacco said the work of police in Williamstown continues around the clock “to protect and to serve the people of this great community.”
“Yet while continuing to do this, the department has received zero support publicly from the Select Board,” he writes. “In fact, the Select Board has sat idly by and watched while a very small, one-sided group has continued to tear away at every practice in our agency. For police officers, other public safety personnel, or any municipal employee – such a lack of support and blanket disregard by the executive body of this town is unacceptable.”
At a time when it is difficult to recruit quality candidates to be police officers, these events make it worse, he wrote.
And he noted that he believes that many residents in town, along with business owners and other town employees, support members of the force, “but for fear of experiencing backlash will not say anything publicly.”
Sacco described an increasingly perilous position for local police officers.
“A small-but-loud, and damaging, chorus of voices are establishing a narrative in Williamstown that police should be mistrusted, disrespected and punished – simply for being police,” the letter reads.
“And this poison rhetoric has had a chilling effect on the voices of a much larger group who support us. It is for the above listed and other unstated reasons — that no town board or committee has bothered to consider — that we are alerting you to the hostile environment created by the DIRE committee and the Select Board.”
“This creates a dangerous and unsafe working environment,” the letter says. “The DIRE committee’s rhetoric encourages the public to distrust the police. This is not the committee as it was initially proposed to bridge gaps and provide suggestions after speaking with all the involved parties across the town. This committee’s sole focus is on the police department and never once has the police department been asked to the table.”
DIRE committee member Ansari said the committee has always had an open door.
“DIRE is open to the public and we welcome comments from the WPD,” Ansari said. “All 16 officers are welcome to come to speak with us anytime. Perhaps one day I hope our WPD Chief will sit on this committee or their appointee.”
But there are some difficult issues that need to be handled, Ansari added.
“Let’s be clear: A supervisor, Sgt. McGowan, an 18-year law enforcement veteran, has filed a complaint and very little was denied by the town manager and police chief.”
He said the town’s response affirmed WPD’s “long history of keeping secrets of a hostile work environment.”
“The Select Board was blindsided by all of this and now DIRE is in support of the broad public outcry of an independent investigation,” Ansari said.