WPD, Security walk same beat in Williamstown

Roots run deep between Williams Security and the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). While Security traditionally concerns itself with student safety and the WPD with law enforcement, the two departments must team up when these interests overlap. The past couple of weeks, which saw one Williams student charged with credit card fraud, two reports of sexual assault on campus and an incident on Stetson Rd. which resulted in one student charged with destruction of property and another with indecent exposure, provide good case studies for the interaction between Security and the WPD when crimes may have been committed involving the College community.

In the recent case of a student charged with credit card fraud, the flow of information went both ways. When officials from a credit card company called Security with their suspicions that a student on the Williams campus was using stolen information to make purchases, Security immediately informed the WPD. After three weeks of investigation, the WPD had built enough of a case to obtain a search warrant for the student’s room. According to Dave Boyer, associate director of Security, the WPD called Security a few hours before they intended to serve the warrant.

That’s when Security took over. With its database containing information on classes, sports practices and housing, not to mention recent keycard swipes, Security is able to track students’ movements around campus and estimate, although without a high degree of certainty, where any given student will be at any given time. According to Boyer, on the rare occasion that an outside law enforcement agency must serve a student with a legal document, Security works with that agency to make the time the document is served in “the least embarrassing [manner] possible.” In other words, students won’t get their subpoenas served in Psych 101 or out on Baxter Lawn, or in any other large group situation.

The student charged with credit card fraud was met by a member of Security on the evening of April 1 and brought to a private location where the search warrant was served by officers of the WPD. In this case, Security had tried to balance its responsibility for the welfare of students with its need to cooperate with the WPD.

“We have an obligation to work with [law enforcement] agencies, but we also have students’ best interests in mind,” said Boyer.

In the recent case of a reported sexual assault on the Williams campus in the early morning of April 13, Security was again notified before the WPD. The alleged victim was taken to North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) to have a rape kit prepared, and Security notified the WPD of the previous day’s events at 6:20 a.m. on the morning of April 14, approximately 25 minutes after NARH had called the WPD to tell them the same thing.

The delay may have been due to Security’s responsibility to the rights of students who may have been victims of sexual assault. Until a student wants to involve the police in the investigation, said Boyer, Security may not share any information with the WPD.

The WPD, of course, is legally prohibited from sharing certain information about ongoing cases with Security. According to WPD Sergeant Kyle Johnson, this includes “any information in cases that wouldn’t be public knowledge.” In theory, only when a piece of evidence goes to court does it become public knowledge.

For its part, Security is prohibited by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) from sharing any information pertaining to a student’s past educational record. An outside law enforcement agency must subpoena Security reports if it wants personal information on a student, such as date of birth and social security number.

“There is certain public information that we will release, but beyond that we require a subpoena,” said Nancy Roseman, dean of the College.

That doesn’t prevent a certain amount of informal information-sharing from taking place. According to Boyer, a call to Security on a weekend night can save the WPD a lot of trouble.

“We’re called often to the Spring St. area to handle intoxicated students,” said Boyer. “[The WPD’s] option is protective custody. Ours is the Health Center.”

According to both Boyer and Johnson, the WPD can gain a lot from Security’s closer connection to students. “If we’re investigating a case with any affiliation with the College, often they have the answer,” said Johnson.

For Security and the WPD, however, the line between “we” and “they” is often blurred. Security officer Robin Hart currently works for both, full-time for Security and part-time for the WPD. Boyer worked as a reserve officer for the WPD between 1989 and 1994, during which time he was also a third shift officer with Security. He left the WPD in 1994 at least partly because of what he considered at the time to be a conflict of interest.

“I did choose to leave the WPD at that time, because there were issues. I got tired of having to make distinctions,” he said.

No distinctions are great enough to prevent cooperation, though. Johnson has been pleased with recent results.

“Both the credit card fraud and indecent exposure cases resulted in felony charges, with help from Williams Security,” he said, citing the past couple of weeks as a successful period of cooperation between the WPD and Security.

The two departments technically have different duties and responsibilities, but the differences between their two approaches are not really all that great, according to Boyer and others. In particular, there may not be much truth to the belief that the WPD is colder and harsher toward students. Two weeks ago, the Record published a story describing a drunk student spitting at a WPD officer. The officer held his ground. Later, Boyer was shocked when he read the story.

“I know there were several of us here that marveled at the patience of that police officer,” he said.