Williamstown Police Station sign (copy)

Michael Ziemba, Williamstown’s acting police chief, said officers have been disciplined for conducting unauthorized database searches without “a criminal justice purpose.” The Eagle has learned that in some cases, the searches concerned people who have been vocal critics of the Williamstown Police Department over the past six months.

WILLIAMSTOWN — The Williamstown Police Department has disciplined three officers for improperly using the state’s criminal information database to look up records on as many as 20 people without having a legitimate “criminal justice purpose” to do so.

Searching records of individuals in this way is considered a violation.

Acting Chief Michael Ziemba said in a statement Friday that officers made unauthorized use of the Criminal Justice Information System. Ziemba did not specify in the statement why the officers made those searches, in this case into records with the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

But, in an interview Friday, Ziemba confirmed that those whose records were improperly searched “were mostly critics of our department.”

“We are taking actions so the public sees we’re serious about this and that it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “We found mistakes and we’ve taken everything incredibly seriously. We’re addressing those mistakes and being honest about it.”

The department faced public criticism over the past six months, as the town grappled with a civil lawsuit’s allegations of racial bias and sexual harassment inside the department.

Ziemba said that when the question of unauthorized searches came to light, the department began an investigation, which he said continues. Ziemba was named to lead the department after the December resignation of Chief Kyle Johnson, who was a prime target in the lawsuit filed by Sgt. Scott E. McGowan. The lawsuit was withdrawn after Johnson quit.

As part of the investigation, Ziemba said he has spoken with half of those whose records were improperly searched. “I understand and share their frustration, and I have welcomed the opportunity to hear their fears and concerns,” Ziemba said in the statement, referring to those who became the subjects of improper database searches.

“I thank them for speaking with me directly. I reiterate my commitment to transparency in sharing with the public what details can be shared while the investigation remains ongoing,” he said.

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The disciplinary actions include suspensions and retraining, Ziemba said. Not all of the suspensions have been completed.

In the wake of the improper searches, all Williamstown officers were ordered to undergo retraining in proper use of the database system, known as CJIS. That training has been completed.

Ziemba said that safeguards against improper use of the system have been strengthened, as the department works with CJIS officials. “They’ve assisted with the investigation and obviously they’re watching closely,” he said of the agency.

Meantime, Ziemba himself is now reviewing logs of all searches conducted by the department’s officers.

On the Williamstown Mass. Info & Issues group on Facebook, the news brought both calls for reform and support for Ziemba.

Jessica Dils of Williamstown posted: “We have been violated and harmed. Steadfast, we change systems together. Also grateful for Lt. Ziemba’s strong efforts and public accountability.” Dils could not be immediately reached Friday for further comment.

Another town resident, Amy Johnson Fredette, used a short post on the group’s page to decry what she termed an abuse of power and a violation of civil rights.

“This is the result of speaking up and out against injustices in this town, illegal searches by our very own local law enforcement using the Criminal Justice Investigation System [sic],” the post said. “A complete abuse of power, violation of civil rights, violation of privacy ….”

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and CommonWealth Magazine.