Late last year, The Eagle editorial board wrote that the departure of an embattled former Williamstown police chief would hopefully give the town an opportunity to restore trust and transparency at a department lacking in both.
As one chapter of controversy closed, however, another has opened — an even clearer sign of how badly this local force needs reform.
Recent reporting by The Berkshire Eagle investigations team revealed strong evidence that Sgt. Scott McGowan altered police records in 2005 in an apparent attempt to obscure his role in an alleged assault on a Williams College student.
According to interviews and documents obtained by The Eagle, Sgt. McGowan surreptitiously edited a police log entry pertaining to an April 2005 altercation on the Williams campus. Williamstown Police responded to a request for assistance from Williams College security after a student said a man who appeared intoxicated had gotten out of a car, yelled at him, pushed him and spit in his face.
Sgt. McGowan, through his attorney, denied that he falsified the records. But Kyle Johnson, who was chief of police in 2005, told The Eagle that Sgt. McGowan previously admitted assaulting the student and tampering with the police log information. Mr. Johnson’s account, corroborated by other officers who spoke to The Eagle, is referenced in a written complaint sent to the Williamstown Select Board and town manager earlier this month. The complaint, which is endorsed by the entire department except Sgt. McGowan and acting Chief Michael Ziemba, also alleges a pattern of bullying and verbal harassment by Sgt. McGowan against his department co-workers.
It’s not the only alarming behavior that Sgt. McGowan has displayed while working for the Williamstown Police Department. In 1999, Sgt. McGowan — then a part-time dispatcher in the town of Adams and a part-time officer in Williamstown — was arrested on a charge of domestic assault and battery after his then-partner said he threw her against a wall in her apartment. The woman later applied for and received a restraining order. McGowan admitted to facts sufficient to warrant a guilty finding and was ordered to receive private counseling. The case was continued without a finding.
Sgt. McGowan was a major figure in a department scandal last year, saying he had suffered retribution for calling out instances of alleged sexual and racial harassment by Mr. Johnson, the former chief who stepped down in December. Amid the department’s internal strife, Sgt. McGowan presented himself as a whistleblower seeking to rehabilitate the department’s problematic practices from within. That image the sergeant sought to project, however, is undermined by these recent revelations. As the town reviews the officers’ complaint, it should make it a priority to determine whether McGowan falsified police records to conceal his connection to an assault on a college student. If substantiated, McGowan should be off the force immediately.
Unfortunately, this department’s issues run deeper than any one officer’s behavior. Earlier this month, the department disciplined three officers for improperly using the state’s criminal information database without any “criminal justice purpose” — a violation that targeted 20 people who “were mostly critics of our department,” according to acting Chief Ziemba, who said the discipline for the offending officers includes suspension and retraining.
Between the database violations, the complaint against Sgt. McGowan and the former chief’s roiling departure, there is a worrisome through-line. This force is in desperate need of a reckoning to root out a culture of unaccountability and inexcusable conduct. Without it, the local force’s mission to serve and protect is delegitimized — a stain unfortunately borne by even those officers who have not participated in such conduct.
The town must move with diligence, introspection and transparency to get to the bottom of what appear to be deep-seated issues within the department. This objective should be front of mind for local officials as Williamstown seeks a new town manager.
Police departments need to inspire trust in the communities they serve, and this force is far from that. Only through creating a culture of accountability can the Williamstown Police Department get that trust back.