Sergeant alleges sex harassment, bias, retaliation within Williamstown Police Department

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WILLIAMSTOWN — A longtime sergeant in the Williamstown Police Department says he and others have, for years,  been subjected to a hostile work environment that included unwanted sexual touching, use of racist epithets and behavior, demeaning remarks and retaliation.

Sgt. Scott McGowan, in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, claims that Chief Kyle Johnson sexually assaulted male and female officers in 2007 by repeatedly rubbing his groin up against them.

"This behavior constituted sexual harassment as well as criminal sexual assault, and was totally unbecoming for an officer of the law," the complaint says.

"For well over a decade, the Williamstown Police Department has maintained an atmosphere in which racial harassment and hostility to persons of color are tolerated and perpetrated at the highest level," the complaint says.

It names Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch, who McGowan says was made aware of discriminatory conduct within the department but did not investigate.

"His concern was only that the reputation of the Town of Williamstown might suffer if these facts were publicized," the complaint says of Hoch.

Johnson said that, on the advice of counsel, he could not comment.Hoch said he could not speak to specifics in the complaint at this point."The responsible thing for the town is not to comment," he said.

McGowan is seeking a jury trial and asks to be compensated for earnings lost due to discrimination and for "emotional and physical pain and suffering."

McGowan first brought his case to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination last November. After reviewing the allegations and taking statements from Johnson and Hoch, the MCAD referred the complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

McGowan and his Boston attorney, David A. Russcol, withdrew the MCAD complaint to instead bring legal action in U.S. District Court.

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Sergeant's claims

The complaint cites racially discriminatory actions by Johnson and others within the department, including use of a racial slur and open harassment of a Black officer. The lawsuit includes an exhibit showing a photograph of Adolf Hitler hanging in 2018 inside an officer's locker; it says the town and department knew of the photo and did not see to its removal.

In the complaint, McGowan says he sought as early as 2007 to improve the way the department responded to cases of sexual assault. McGowan discloses that he was a victim of sexual assault and has worked as a police officer to improve how survivors are treated.

Later that year, McGowan claims, Johnson on four occasions touched him sexually.

"Johnson rubbed his clothed penis up against McGowan's body twice on his right arm, once on his left arm, and once on his right hand," the complaint says.

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When McGowan objected, he says the chief "laughed and dared McGowan to write him up."

A female officer was subjected to the same touching, the complaint says. And a male dispatcher complained in writing to Johnson in August 2007 about the same kind of behavior.

According to the suit, Johnson provided a sworn statement to the MCAD and denied that he engaged in sexual assault. But, that statement also said that during the time in question, Johnson and others "engaged in what Chief Johnson now recognizes was unprofessional and juvenile locker room behavior ... The small department was fairly close and the environment was sometimes light, with some joking and pranks."

It acknowledged that behavior "engaged in by members of the department, including himself, needed to change."

Other allegations

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The complaint's allegation of racial bias includes an account of a Black officer's experience in the department. The suit refers to that staff member as "Officer C."

McGowan says that, in conduct that demeaned that officer, Johnson was in the habit of clipping out newspaper photos of people of African descent and writing the Black officer's initials on them and placing them in her department mailbox.

"On many other occasions in Officer C's presence, when Johnson saw a person of color entering the police station, he would rub his eyes, look back and forth between Officer C and the other person of color, and appear to be confused as if Officer C were in two places at once," the complaint says.

And in 2014, when that same officer was giving a station tour to a Black student from Williams College, a white dispatcher shouted the racial slur to others present. The complaint says Johnson was aware of that, including that the dispatcher admitted using the word, but took no disciplinary action.

McGowan says he tried to transfer from the department due to the work environment but found himself blocked from leaving by Hoch.

He also accuses Hoch of interfering with the affairs of the police union, for which McGowan served as president.

"Hoch encouraged the members to oust McGowan," the complaint says.

The sergeant also claims that he was passed over for promotion to a newly created lieutenant's position, seeing the job go to a lower ranking officer with no command experience.

McGowan's complaint says that, starting in 2007, Johnson began to reduce the sergeant's work responsibilities, including his standing as the second-ranking official in the department.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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