WILLIAMSTOWN — Faced with a volatile stew of anger and mistrust when he became interim police chief in late 2020, Michael Ziemba says he has spent the more than two years of his leadership trying to improve the Williamstown Police Department's culture.
Ziemba's title no longer includes "interim"; in December the 22-year veteran of the department became, simply, chief.
The ugly 2020 conflict between then-Chief Kyle Johnson and then-Sgt. Scott McGowan preceded and fueled Ziemba's rise to the top.
McGowan in August 2020 filed a lawsuit alleging sexual and racist harassment by Johnson and others. Months later, fellow officers wrote a letter to town officials alleging that the sergeant himself engaged in some of the discriminatory conduct for which he blamed others. Johnson resigned in December 2020, and McGowan agreed to retire in November 2021.
Two outside investigators found that Johnson and McGowan “initiated, participated in and tolerated” sexual harassment and misconduct and racist comments and conduct.
Other troubles followed in March 2021 for the new and already embattled interim chief, as he announced that the department disciplined three officers for improperly searching the state’s Registery of Motor Vehicles database, without a legitimate "criminal justice purpose," on as many as 20 people. Ziemba confirmed that those whose records were improperly searched “were mostly critics of our department.”
Then Officer Craig Eichhammer faced backlash in the summer of 2021 when it was revealed that he had a photograph of Adolf Hitler hanging in his locker for years, which he said was a joke because a colleague bore a resemblance to the Nazi dictator of Germany. While community groups called for Eichhammer’s firing, the town determined it did not have the grounds to do so. Eichhammer remains on the force.
Such a hitory, along with other instances of racism, has degraded trust between the progressive Williamstown community and its police department. Ziemba wants to reestablish that trust, and says he recognizes the work it has taken, and will take, to do so.
The Eagle recently sat with Ziemba to talk about his plans for the department. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and at a few points, includes follow-up responses.
Q: You are no longer the interim chief. Has that been a big change? Do you feel more secure in your role?
A: It’s nice to have the interim title behind us. I wasn’t a placeholder. Immediately upon taking over we started to act on the recommendations of the private investigator and the attorney that the town had consulted to do a study into the events at the time. That consisted of revamping policy and procedure. We took the initiative to get moving on accreditation; the only other town in the county that’s accredited is Great Barrington right now. We’re in that process. We brought on a part-time accreditation manager. We brought in the Department of Justice for their Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships (SPCP) program, which was excellent.
Q: And part of that was a public discussion.
A: Yes, they came in and essentially formed a planning group for the event that we had in March, we took the topics that came out of the event with the community. Ourselves and the DOJ formed a working group to address those concerns, and we meet regularly. We’ve made progress on some fronts, there’s others that we’re still working on. Officer Tania Hernandez is part of that council, myself, and the accreditation manager Charles Chandler.
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: PLEASE EXPLAIN TRANSPARENCY EFFORTS:
A: Putting policies, (memorandums of understanding), rules, regs on the website, posting our bi-weekly town-manager reports on our department activity on Facebook, better documentation of what and why we do what we do.
Q: Why is it important to be accredited?
A: It’s validation of best practices from your peers. There’s a group of law enforcement members that go around to other police departments in Massachusetts, review your policies, your procedures, your practices, the way you capture data, the way you share and transfer data, and they say, "This is a top-notch department that’s operating the way they should be." (Full accreditation is probably 1 1/2 to 2 years away, Ziemba added later.)
Q: It sounds like another way you’re trying to rebuild trust with the community, to show, "We are a solid department."
A: That’s been our big goal for the last two years, transparency, forward-facing, open-door, open dialogue, more community events. In the past we had done events like coffee with a cop, we’re trying to add to that. (In accorance with SPCP council recommendations) we had a holiday gathering in December, last summer we did a lot of kickball games with kids and adults, we had game nights at the Harper Center, and we have another event coming up in February at the Harper Center. We’re trying to increase our presence in the community so that we're not just seeing them during bad times.
Q: In 2021 you revealed that some officers were wrongly using their access to the criminal database. Why do you think it was important to make that information public?
A: Because it was the right thing to do. Initially when that came about, those officers were disciplined and retrained, and we put the information out there, and I reached out to then-involved community members. It’s transparency. When we make a mistake, having the integrity to say we made a mistake, we’re going to fix it, we’re going to own it, we’re moving forward.
Q: For better or worse, I think people don’t expect that from police, so I think that was a big step.
A: Before I forget, body cams. We haven’t officially rolled the program out yet, probably within the next week we will. We have a policy in place, we have the cameras. I applied for a grant last year, it covers the cost of half of the program to outfit 12 of us with body cameras and to account for the data storage. It’s another level of transparency and accountability. It would help if there were complaints or an internal affairs investigation; they’re also used for evidentiary purposes. Another big change, with the police reform bill and the POST commission (which is Massachusetts's police licensing agency): We had always relied on two part-time officers. With the training requirements of POST, it essentially did away with the feasibility of part-time officers. We'd have to train them to the level of a full-time police officer, which means they’ll go to another agency.
Q: I want to go back to this database question for a second. I know at the time the officers involved were suspended and retrained. Have you had to do anything else within the department to make sure no one does that again?
A: I didn’t just randomly decide what to do, it was in consultation with the town manager at the time, that’s how we came up with progressive discipline. I have been, since then, monitoring our queries. I don’t expect to see any repeat issues. We have rules and regulations and policies and procedures in place, and they will be followed.
Q: Tell me why private citizens shouldn’t be concerned about the police looking into them, especially if they’re critics of the department.
A: I think the way we handled that incident speaks to that. There’s zero tolerance for disregarding the rules or the policies or procedures. And that’s the way it has to be moving forward.
Q: I have to ask about this officer who had the Hitler photo in his locker. Why did nobody speak up about it for 20 years? It’s possible some people didn’t know, but why do you think it didn’t come up for so long?
A: I don’t know the answer to that. I think you’re right that part of it is people didn’t know. The other part of it is, maybe they weren’t comfortable at the time to speak out. I’d like to think that’s not the case now. If there’s an issue, you have an obligation to bring that to me, so that can be dealt with and addressed. I don’t anticipate issues like that moving forward.
Q: Do you think there was a need for a culture change before you took over, with these allegations of racist comments and sexual harassment?
A: I do.
Q: Do you think that you and the new regime have brought it?
A: I do.
Q: Is there anything you'd like the public to know right now?
A: I said it when I took over, give us the time, space and resources to fix the problems and change. Now that it’s been more than two years, we’re doing that. If it’s broken on Monday, it can’t be fixed by Wednesday. It’s a whole culture change. It’s a review of everything. It’s acting on recommendations from the investigator and the attorney. It’s making sure we're adhering to best practices. For accreditation, they want to see everything in writing how you operate. It’s only going to make us better because it’s going to spell things out when there are questions.
Q: I find it compelling that a local guy has come in, who’s been here for a while, and is trying to make this culture change.
A: It’s not a matter of if policing is going to change. It’s: Can you keep up with the changes? We have to change with society because we’re part of society. So you have to stay ahead of that curve, not just with technology but with the way you conduct yourselves and the things that you do or don’t do.
Reports confirm hostile work environment at Williamstown Police Department, lay the blame on former chief and former sergeant
Q: The college campus in particular was anti-police for awhile, especially after the murder of George Floyd. Have there been special efforts to build trust with the student body since?
A: We’re constantly working on initiatives with security. Eric Sullivan took over as a director of security there within the last two years. We looked at that as a fresh start: How can we collaborate to do things together? Everyone obviously has their own opinions about law enforcement and police departments, and that’s fine. We’re here to serve a purpose, we‘re here to listen to those concerns and those issues. Any way that we can collaborate with the college moving forward is what we plan on doing.