WILLIAMSTOWN — The Select Board moved closer to consensus Monday on steps it will take to reform the Williamstown Police Department and find a new chief.
While no votes were taken, the board seemed to favor seeking an independent probe of the department, in light of allegations of racial bias and sexual harassment contained in a federal lawsuit that since has been withdrawn.
“The most important thing is their evaluation of systemic bias in the department now and how do we address it,” said Jeffrey Thomas, a board member. “That is of paramount importance.”
But, some members wondered whether investigating past actions would be challenging legally and difficult on department morale, when the most important question is whether bias now exists in the Police Department and, if so, how to eradicate it. Others said the community deserves clarity on past actions within the department, saying that knowledge could guide reform.
During a session held by videoconference Monday, board members said that while not all the information about past actions would be accessible legally, any report should be as complete as possible. Board members were concerned that the process be as transparent as possible.
Jane Patton, the board’s chairwoman, said she sees value in providing more context to the allegations in Sgt. Scott McGowan’s lawsuit.
“Providing what clarity we can is important,” she said. “It has to be fully independent and fully transparent.”
In early August, McGowan filed suit against then-Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch. In the suit, McGowan maintained that the chief was involved in past sexual harassment and racist actions against employees and that the town manager knew of the issues and failed to act.
After several months of debate and an apology from the chief, Johnson resigned his post shortly after Thanksgiving. McGowan then dropped his lawsuit.
The Select Board is preparing to conduct a search for a new chief, while Lt. Michael Ziemba continues to serve as interim chief. But, first, as Patton has said, the board needs to take the time to decide on criteria for the search and to delineate any changes members would like to see in the department’s operations.
In terms of replacing Johnson, the board discussed the merits of hiring an interim police chief while the community collects data and comes up with a clearer vision of what duties the Police Department should and shouldn’t do.
Then, when it’s closer to that vision, the board would start the police chief search.
Another option discussed Monday would keep Ziemba on as interim chief and start the search for a permanent chief sooner. The search is likely to take three to six months.
One issue with that option is that the board members were concerned Ziemba might be overloaded, as he already is covering two other positions. He has said he is coping with the workload and said he is willing to do whatever the town needs of him, but the concern remains.
“Mike will step up and do what the department needs,” Hoch said. “But, it is a lot to take on.”
Another issue is that some on the board and in the community hope to have a firm understanding of changes that might be made to the department before a new chief is hired. Those adjustments, they note, would influence the type of chief the town would seek.
The town has established an advisory group to study whether some police calls should be handled by a person with social worker and mediation training, especially when it comes to assisting people suffering a mental health crisis.
Select Board member Andy Hogeland said that the town could conduct a search right away and make it clear the department is in transition and seek a chief who fits into that scenario. Otherwise, if the town decides to wait to complete the visioning work, it should seek an interim chief to get Ziemba back to his other two jobs and to bolster staffing.
Hogeland expressed a wish that the new chief play a role in the department’s transition.
“If this is going to be a much longer process, I think it’s too much to ask of Mike [Ziemba], and the idea of an interim chief becomes more practical,” Hogeland said.
But, others were insistent that the community deserves clarity on those past actions, and that the knowledge would help inform the town on how its Police Department should be reformed.