2020-10-5-WILLICHIEF

Two groups are seeking the termination of a Williamstown Police officer who once had a photo of Adolf Hitler hanging in his locker.

WILLIAMSTOWN — A growing list of groups is calling on town officials to terminate the employment of a police officer over the fact that, for years, a photograph of Adolf Hitler hung in his locker at the station.

During the past two weeks, interim Town Manager Charles Blanchard has received two letters requesting that he terminate Officer Craig Eichhammer because of the photo, which was removed from the locker and disposed of a couple of years ago, when staff moved into the new police station.

Blanchard said the Select Board will be drafting a letter in response to the two written requests for Eichhammer’s termination.

According to a statement that Eichhammer submitted to town management last year, the photo was hung in the locker about 21 years ago as a humorous nudge at a former officer who bore a passing resemblance to the man who tried to take over Europe during World War II and caused the deaths of 6 million Jews and millions of others.

It was not a testament or sign of fealty to the man who is a symbol of fascism around the world, according to the statement.

In his statement to the town manager last year, Eichhammer wrote that his former partner on the night shift in 1999 or 2000 was a point of humor in the station because of his resemblance to the former German chancellor.

“I stuck the photograph on the locker wall just as one would of possibly hanging a comic strip or picture they thought was funny,” he wrote.

“The photo was out of view and could not be seen even with the locker door open. The photograph was put up for no other reason than a laugh factor poking fun at [his former partner]. The photo was left there and basically forgotten about. It stayed in the same spot for 20 years and no one knew it was there.”

Eichhammer also asserted that it was not meant as a reflection of his political beliefs.

“At no time was it my belief that the picture was nothing more than a figure from a history book,” he noted. “I had no ideologies of Nazi Germany, swastikas or anything terrible that happened during WW2. Again, the photo was simply just to get a laugh of the likeness of [his former partner].”

One letter seeking the officer’s dismissal, addressed to the town manager and Select Board, from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, equated the existence of the photo in the locker with antisemitism.

“To flaunt Hitler’s image is to echo neo-Nazis and other hate groups that revere Hitler as a symbol of white supremacy,” the committee wrote. “It is impossible to expect the community to turn to the WPD in the wake of a hate crime — whether that be a school vandalized with a swastika, or bias-motivated violence such as Massachusetts has recently seen — when there is a perception that WPD officers may hold the same white supremacist or bigoted beliefs as the perpetrators of those crimes.”

Another letter, from the Legal Redress and Race Relations committees of the NAACP Berkshire County branch, reenforced the notion that the trustworthiness of the Williamstown Police Department is in question as a result of the photo and other events that were raised in a lawsuit brought by Williamstown Police Sgt. Scott.

“Such behavior is abhorrent and reprehensible, in addition to being in direct violation of written (Williamstown Police) Department policy,” the NAACP letter reads. “Any public servant who engages in such behavior does not deserve employment with a public agency.”

The NAACP letter also notes that “there are other incidents involving Officer Eichhammer which reinforce the (Berkshire County branch) NAACP’s demand for his termination. These include his sexual assault of a Williamstown resident in 2011 and his subsequent placement on the Berkshire DA’s ‘do-not-call’ list, ‘which consists of officers whose credibility is so compromised that they are disqualified from testifying on behalf of the state.’”

The NAACP previously had expressed concerns to town management, last November, and noted in the letter that it had not heard any response from the town.

“We are writing to demand that the Town of Williamstown terminate the employment of Craig Eichhammer from the Williamstown Police Department for conduct unbecoming of an officer of the law,” the NAACP letter states.

Andy Hogeland, chairman of the Williamstown Select Board, told The Eagle that he cannot discuss personnel or discipline issues surrounding any individual employed by the town. But, he added a thought about having Hitler photos posted in a workplace.

“Having such a picture inside a police locker is highly offensive to the community,” Hogeland wrote in an email. “Even though the officer has explained the photo was never meant to represent his beliefs, his horrible judgment has caused significant pain among our residents. This has been a terrible chapter for our town, and I hope we can work our way through this.”

For over a year, Williamstown has been struggling with issues of race and policing as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and the revelation that incidents of racial and sexual harassment have occurred at the Police Department in the past.

The allegations came out as part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in August 2020 by McGowan. The suit maintains that McGowan was retaliated against for decrying racial and sexual harassment in the Police Department by the police chief.

The harassment charges refer to incidents more than a decade ago in which McGowan charges that former Police Chief Kyle 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 suit also alleged that a Hitler photo was hanging in one of the officers’ lockers, and included a photograph documenting its presence in the station.

Shortly thereafter, a Brady list was released by Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington. The list provides the names of police officers who should not be considered credible courtroom witnesses in criminal trails because of documented wrongdoing or misconduct, and it included Eichhammer.

In a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, McGowan said Eichhammer had been disciplined, but not terminated, for sexual aggression toward a female resident of the town in 2011.

In his statement to town management, Eichhammer wondered why McGowan didn’t take down the Hitler photo.

“At some point in the recent years Sgt. McGowan was able to see the Hitler photo and take a picture of it,” Eichhammer wrote. “At no point did he mention he was disturbed by it. It would have been my wish as a Sergeant he would have taken the photo down himself or told me to take it down because he was offended. I sincerely apologize for any problems this chain of events have caused.”

McGowan’s attorney, David Russcol, noted that McGowan was not Eichhammer’s supervisor in the chain of command at the time.

“Officer Eichhammer reported to a different sergeant,” Russcol wrote in an email to The Eagle.

“In his federal complaint, Sgt. McGowan discussed how he brought this issue to the attention of his commanding officer, then-Chief Johnson, in 2016, although the picture was visible to others in the station and he believes that everybody knew it was there. After Sgt. McGowan took the matter to a higher level of command, Chief Johnson chose not to take any action.”

As a result of the turmoil of the past year, Johnson and former Town Manager Jason Hoch resigned their posts. After Johnson resigned, McGowan dropped his lawsuit against the town in December.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or at 413-629-4517.