Town denies allegations against WPD chief, admits 2014 racial harassment incident

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Editor’s Note: This article describes instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The Williamstown Select Board released a response Thursday addressing some of the allegations made by Williamstown Police Department (WPD) Sergeant Scott McGowan in a federal lawsuit against WPD Chief Kyle Johnson, Town Manager Jason Hoch and the Town of Williamstown. 

While the Town acknowledged that McGowan’s lawsuit “raises genuine questions or doubts about the Town’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and racial equity,” their response –– the second public statement made by the five-person board on the lawsuit –– disputes several of McGowan’s characterizations of incidents. Additionally, it denies allegations that Johnson committed sexual assault or racial harassment, and claims that McGowan did not experience retaliation for reporting and opposing alleged incidents of sexual assault and racial harassment. 

The Town, however, did admit to a 2014 incident in which a WPD dispatcher said the N-word while a Black Williams student was touring the police station. The statement did not deny two allegations – that a photograph of Adolf Hitler was hung in a WPD officer’s station locker, and a 2011 incident of sexual assault allegedly committed by a WPD officer – but it did dispute McGowan’s characterization of the 2011 incident.

Along with the letter, the Select Board attached a copy of a statement written by the Town, Hoch and Johnson to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January “so that the public would have more information than just the allegations.”

David Russcol, McGowan’s attorney, said the response confirmed several elements of McGowan’s complaint.  

“By releasing their Position Statement, the Town, Chief Johnson, and Town Manager Hoch have publicly acknowledged that they admitted the truth of several key facts in the Complaint,” Russcol wrote in an email to the Record. “It is ironic that they continue to describe them as merely allegations.”

Russcol also wrote that McGowan “disputes many aspects of the [Town’s] Position Statement [to the MCAD], and looks forward to having his case heard in court on the merits.” 

The Town plans to review the allegations, noting that much of the investigation and review will be conducted out of public view.

Williamstown resident Bilal Ansari, a member of the town’s Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity (DIRE) committee who is also assistant vice president for campus engagement at the College, said that the Select Board’s statement left many questions unanswered about their initial response to the allegations. 

“Especially when you read the answers to the MCAD complaint, any decent person would ask how is it possible that our Town leaders are protecting and promoting such an unprofessional work environment,” Ansari said. “It admits to several of the facts in the complaint — it does not dispute allowing a hostile work environment of racial and sexual harassment to employees and the public.”

Admitting one incident of racial harassment, denying others 

The Town’s statement does not specify what specific disciplinary action was taken for the 2014 N-word incident, though saying that the dispatcher who used the word was “appropriately disciplined.” 

McGowan’s MCAD complaint states that the department conducted no formal investigation and that the dispatcher received no official disciplinary action except for removal from a “few scheduled shifts.” 

Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leticia Smith-Evans Haynes ’99 said that the incident is indicative of the historic legacy of racism in America. 

“The use of the N-word –– if that indeed is what happened –– in a way to demean or degrade is unacceptable,” she said. “It is so deeply rooted in the history of this country: legalized, racial segregation, slavery –– there are almost no permissble instances when that word should be used, … and use of the word in a police station by a police officer cannot be tolerated.”

The Town’s statement also does not specifically dispute the allegation that a WPD officer hung a photograph of Adolf Hitler in his locker, photographic evidence of which was provided to the Record when the lawsuit was first filed on Aug. 12. However, the statement denies that McGowan had ever spoken up about the photograph and says that Johnson did not have any knowledge of the alleged photograph until he read McGowan’s 2019 MCAD complaint. 

The MCAD complaint, as well as the ongoing lawsuit, claims that the Hitler photograph was part of a pattern of ongoing racist incidents that led a Black officer, whom the MCAD complaint anonymizes as Officer “Smith,” to leave the WPD in 2016. Other such incidents, McGowan’s complaint alleges, include racial harassment committed by Johnson, in which Johnson would allegedly clip newspaper articles featuring images of people of color, circle the individuals, write Officer Smith’s initials on them, and then place the newspaper clippings in the officer’s department mailbox. The complaint says that Johnson did this repeatedly over a number of years. 

The Town denies that this conduct ever occurred, and says that Smith “never complained to [Johnson] that any of his conduct was in any way offensive to him.” According to the Town’s statement, when Officer Smith sought to transfer to another department, McGowan allegedly told Johnson that Smith “planned to tell the media that Chief Johnson was a racist.” The statement says that McGowan was unable to provide an example of Johnson’s racist behavior when Johnson asked him. 

“Nonetheless, concerned about possible media coverage of these false allegations, and knowing the difficulty of disproving false allegations in the press,” the Town’s statement says. “Chief Johnson spoke with Hoch, and they jointly decided that it was not worth the potential damage to the reputation of the Williamstown Police Department” and allowed the transfer of Smith to take place. 

Denials of sexual assault allegations

The 2019 MCAD complaint and the lawsuit also allege several instances of sexual assault in which Johnson “rubbed his clothed penis up against McGowan’s body on four different days.” The Town’s statement denies that Johnson engaged in any behavior that could be “construed as sexual harassment of McGowan,” but states that earlier on in his tenure, Johnson and others in the WPD engaged in “unprofessional and juvenile locker room behavior.” 

The Town’s statement does not acknowledge whether the behavior alleged by McGowan constitutes some of this “locker room behavior,” nor does it specify exactly what kind of behavior that term refers to. The statement goes on to say that the WPD chief prior to Johnson created an environment that was “light, with some joking and pranks.” 

The statement does not deny a 2011 incident in which a WPD officer allegedly sexually assaulted a female Williamstown resident but disputes McGowan’s characterization of the incident and claims that the officer was “appropriately disciplined for the incident,” though no further detail on the nature of this discipline is given.

According to the 2019 MCAD complaint, the resident had informed McGowan that the unnamed officer had arrived at her house uninvited, “repeatedly asked her if she wanted to have sex” and, after she refused, “exposed himself to her and tried to put her hand on his penis.”

The Town’s statement does not specifically deny the complaint’s description of the alleged sexual assault but says that after a female resident expressed concern about an incident involving the officer to McGowan, Johnson referred the incident to the Massachusetts State Police for investigation. According to the statement, the State Police ultimately did not bring criminal charges against the officer. The statement does not say how the officer was “appropriately disciplined” for the incident. 

Denial of retaliation claims

The Town denied McGowan’s claims that Johnson, Hoch and the Town illegally retaliated against McGowan for speaking out about racial and sexual harassment.  The response disputed several of McGowan’s characterizations of instances in which McGowan stood up against sexual misconduct and Johnson was allegedly unwilling to subsequently take “strong” action.

The Town claims that the decision to pass over McGowan for a promotion was based on an objective and unbiased third party testing process. The Town says that the other officer vying for the position, Michael Ziemba, had scored higher than McGowan on every component of the examination.

The statement adds that Johnson placed McGowan on paid leave and required him to take psychological exams as recommended by the Town Manager, the counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the Town’s labor counsel. According to the statement, Johnson sought such advice because of an email sent by McGowan which outlined the “enormous stress” he faced as a result of his “biased treatment.” Putting McGowan on leave, the statement claims, was in Johnson’s jurisdiction to “determine an officer’s continuing fitness to carry and use a firearm and perform police duties.” 

Johnson admitted that he assigned other responsibilities to Ziemba despite his lower rank. In the statement, he also claimed that not assigning roles to McGowan was necessary to allow him to continue his “key investigator role.” 

Town declines to commission investigation 

A previous Aug. 18 statement by the Select Board said that the Board had only been “recently” made aware of the allegations. Russcol , told the Record that he was surprised at this claim. “Whether or not the Select Board was not made aware of all this over the past several months, the Town chose not to take any action in response [to the November 2019 MCAD complaint],” Russcol said. 

The letter suggested that the Town will not be commissioning a third-party investigation into the lawsuit’s allegations, citing restrictions due to the pending lawsuit. Such an investigation was called for by President of the College Maud S. Mandel and the Williamstown Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) committee. 

The Board did commit to combatting “unconscious or even intentional bias or discrimination.” These initiatives include hiring an independent consultant to review the procedures of the WPD, mandating workplace harassment and discrimination training programs for all Town employees and conducting an audit of all human resource practices in the Town government. 

Haynes said she hopes more information will surface in order to address the various allegations raised by McGowan.

“I hope that we all get some clarity and confirmation, not only on what happened, but on the steps that will be taken to ensure that our community is safe, and that the people in our community feel safe –– regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or any of their identities,” she said.

Ansari said that the Town’s confirmation of several allegations reveals an internal culture that is unacceptable for officers of the law.

“Quite literally, their defense is [that] this is merely ‘juvenile locker [room] behavior,’” Ansari said. “I say, unacceptable and horrifying for an occupation with the authority, power, and track record to take my Black life based on officers’ mental and professional perception. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and I will not feel safe in this Town until this matter is independently investigated.”