WILLIAMSTOWN — Town Manager Jason Hoch announced at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting that he would retain the services of Police Chief Kyle Johnson, amid calls for the termination of both men.
With the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests booming in the background, town officials are struggling with reports of systemic racism and racist acts while community members demand new leadership for the town administration and the Police Department.
Hoch said he and Johnson have had “many challenging conversations regarding past conduct in the Police Department.”
He said there has been “terrible and inappropriate behavior in the past,” but that it has been acknowledged — and regret has been expressed — by Johnson.
He said that while he doesn’t think disciplinary actions already taken regarding the behavior were severe enough, “nonetheless, I have come to the decision to retain Chief Johnson as Williamstown police chief.”
This is a difficult time for the small college town that is perceived as a bastion of progressive thinking but has been roiled recently, during the Black Lives Matter movement, by reports of racist incidents around town.
Then came the revelations in a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in August by Williamstown Police Sgt. Scott McGowan that maintains that McGowan was retaliated against for decrying racial and sexual harassment in the Police Department. The suit asserts that McGowan was denied a promotion as a result.
The suit’s harassment claims refer to incidents a number of years ago in which, before he was named chief, 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, and that a dispatcher used a racial slur in the presence of that officer, who was giving a tour of the station to a Black college student.
The allegations raised a significant furor in the community, with calls for both men to be placed on administrative leave and an the conducting of an independent investigation of the charges.
But there was more to come.
In September, a Brady list was released by Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, listing police officers who, in an effort to protect the rights of defendants, should not be considered credible witnesses because of documented wrongdoing or misconduct. Craig Eichhammer was the only Williamstown officer on the list.
In the complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, McGowan noted that Eichhammer had been disciplined, but not terminated, for sexual assault on a female resident of the town in 2011.
“We recognize in everything we do we are always custodians of a fragile trust with the community we serve,” Hoch said. “Nothing in recent practice reveals that there is any culture of white supremacy, overt racism, or tendency to be a sexual predator. We all abhor any of those beliefs and continue to reject those behaviors.”
At Tuesday’s virtual meeting, Select Board members acknowledged that while they have been working on finding a path forward, they did not publicly acknowledge the pain and anguish all of this is causing in town, and apologized for that failing.
They also talked about Hoch’s decision to retain Johnson, which, according to the town charter, is a matter for the town manager to decide.
“In subsequent discussions with the Select Board,” Hoch added, “the chief was forthright and genuine, and he recognized and reflected on the comments of community members who felt concern, fear or worse. Today, in continuing to work with Chief Johnson, I fully acknowledge that challenging road ahead.”
He said Johnson had made a commitment to make a public apology on a date yet to be determined.
Some Select Board members disagreed with Hoch’s decision to retain Johnson, while others were supportive of it. But they all expressed a desire to press on and make it work while still rooting out systemic racism and seeking a way to encourage healing in the community.
“Many of the voices that I’ve heard believe there should be a change in leadership at the Police Department, that we would be best served as a community by making the necessary changes under a new chief,” said Andrew Hogeland, a member of the Select Board. “I hear these voices and I agree with them.”
He said he had had extensive discussion with the chief and with the rest of the team, and still believes that a change of leadership is the best choice. But he said he respects Hoch’s decision and will “try to make that work. There are good reasons underlying [Hoch’s] decision to move forward with [Johnson].”
Select Board Member Anne O’Connor said she argued in favor of keeping Johnson on the payroll.
“We have reflected deeply and searchingly on this crisis,” she said. “I’m confident that [town leaders] have the judgment, empathy, expertise and leadership to take this town in the direction the community desires.”
Some town residents were astonished by the decision, speaking during the virtual meeting.
“Keeping the same people in place who got us here is a form of insanity,” one woman said. “It shows zero accountability. I am very, very disappointed.”