Amid dissent, Town Manager Hoch retains WPD Chief Johnson

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Hoch announced his decision to retain Kyle Johnson as WPD chief at a Williamstown Select Board meeting on Oct. 26. (Photo courtesy of Willinet.)
Johnson apologizes, announces investigation into new report that WPD officer shared racist Facebook posts

At a Williamstown Select Board meeting on Oct. 26, Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 announced his decision to retain Kyle Johnson as the chief of the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). The announcement comes as Johnson faces allegations of sexual assault and racial harassment in a federal lawsuit filed in August, and as local police accountability organizers have called for his removal

Two members of the Select Board, Jane Patton and Andy Hogeland ’76, said at the meeting that they advocated removing Johnson from his position, while three other members — Anne O’Connor ’86, Jeffrey Thomas and Hugh Daley — voiced their support for retaining him. While the five Board members actively discussed and shared their opinions on the situation to Hoch, as Town Manager in a “strong town manager” system, Hoch has the legal authority to remove town employees.

In past legal filings, the town has denied allegations that Johnson committed sexual assault or racial harassment, but admitted to a 2014 racial harassment incident in which a WPD officer shouted the N-word while a Black Williams student was touring the station, and did not deny two other allegations — that a photograph of Adolf Hitler was hung in a WPD officer’s station locker for three years and that an officer sexually assaulted a town resident in 2011. The incidents of confirmed or alleged misconduct all took place while Johnson was chief. 

In a Select Board meeting on Monday, Johnson apologized for “some poor judgement” early in his tenure, and “tolerating and participating in behaviors that should never have occurred in the workplace.” The apology was the first public statement by Johnson, or any member of the WPD, on the incidents described in the lawsuit. 

Johnson also announced an investigation into new allegations that an unnamed WPD officer had shared anti-Black racist posts on Facebook. According to Johnson, the officer has since been put on administrative leave. 

At the Oct. 26 Select Board meeting, Hoch characterized his decision to retain Johnson as a recognition of Johnson’s progress in his leadership capacity as WPD chief.

“Was there terrible and inappropriate behavior in the past? Yes. Has it been acknowledged and regretted? Yes. Is there any indication that the conditions endure at that same level today? No. In some cases, discipline was delivered at the time. Do I sitting here today agree with the approach taken then? Not always,” Hoch said. “Nonetheless, I’ve come to the important decision to retain Chief Johnson as Williamstown’s Chief of Police.”

At the meeting, Patton, the chair of the Select Board, said she had been “resolute” in advocating that Johnson be removed. In an interview with the Record, she said that her position ultimately came down to, “What is the right thing to do?” 

Anne O’Connor, one of the three Select Board members who supported the decision to retain Johnson, said in an interview with the Record that she was worried about legal challenges against the Town that could result from removing Johnson.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I was concerned that the Town would not have just cause to fire him, which means that he would have prevailed if he had chosen to bring a lawsuit for wrongful termination,” she said. “And that would have resulted in him not only winning damages, but likely the right to be reemployed by the town.”

O’Connor also cited what she sees as the practical difficulty of installing new leadership at the WPD in the middle of a pandemic.

Patton, in contrast, saw the legal risks as significant but not guaranteed. She added that the practical difficulties of removing Johnson were secondary concerns. “This was not a place where I wanted to place so much weight on the potential risk when we had such a huge issue staring us in the face,” she said.

“Sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do,” she added. “… but it doesn’t make it any less the right thing.” 

Patton also expressed her empathy for the effort and judgment of the other members of the Select Board. “Their opinions are their opinions and we don’t have to always agree,” she said. 

The decision-making process 

Hoch said the process by which he decided to retain Johnson involved many conversations with the Select Board, as well as the chief himself. “This was not something where I rushed into a decision and locked in early, nor did the chief, nor did the Board,” Hoch said. He added that legal protections for public employees under state law “potentially constrained our set of choices” and the decision was “not anything that was reached lightly by any of us.” 

“I can’t think of any employment decision that I’ve had in 20 plus years of government that has been so thoroughly discussed, contemplated, dissected and reflected upon between the employee, myself and the elected Board,” he said.

Hoch said the Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) Committee, which the Select Board created as an advisory body over the summer in response to the nationwide conversation that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May, had “no active role” in the discussion over whether  to retain Johnson. He said the Town is still figuring out the exact place of the DIRE Committee in its overall governing structure.

In the meantime, Patton, who also serves on the DIRE Committee, functioned as a liaison between the Select Board and the advisory body, O’Connor said. O’Connor also met individually with three or four members of the DIRE Committee, who she said were not in favor of retaining Johnson as chief. She said the individual members advised her that “there would be no path forward with Johnson,” considering the erosion of trust in the WPD under his leadership.

“I obviously landed somewhere else, which was not at all easy,” O’Connor said.

Throughout the process, Hoch said he “deliberately took a very back seat listening role” to the Select Board. He said that before making his decision, he was aware that the majority opinion on the Select Board favored retaining Johnson and he factored the majority opinion of the elected body into his choice. If members of the Select Board had come down the other way, he said, “I’d be foolish to ignore their wishes.”

Patton, who is the only selectperson on the DIRE committee, said that her experience serving on the committee, which has been accepting public comments from town residents on the WPD allegations, impacted her position in favor of Johnson’s removal “to some degree.” 

“You know, it’s impossible to hear some of those stories, and not just be heartbroken,” she said.

Town criticism 

Town residents have voiced frustrations both over the decision made by Hoch, and over a perceived lack of adequate response and accountability from the Select Board. 

Erin Kaiser Clark, a resident, criticized the Select Board at the Oct. 26 meeting for not mentioning that a WPD officer was placed on a Brady list. 

“You guys had committed to us to be transparent, but you didn’t bring up the Brady list,” Kaiser Clark said. “… This seems to me [that] … this system is still not working on behalf of the citizens to keep us safe.”

In the same meeting, Williamstown resident Annie Art said that she was concerned about Hoch and Johnson being represented by the same lawyer despite having different roles and responsibilities in town government. 

“The public requested an independent investigation, the Select Board refused to do it,” Art wrote in an email to the Record. “Their process has lacked transparency. Johnson, Hoch, and the Town are co-defendants in a lawsuit. The decision to retain Chief Johnson looks to me like protectionism. If they had agreed to an independent investigation we could have at least had an independent voice to support their decision, or perhaps, urge them toward a different course.”

Hoch said he did not see the legal arrangement to be a conflict of interest, and that the insurance company and lawyer overseeing the defense would separate the Town, Hoch and Johnson in legal representation if interests did not align. 

“The insurance company and the lawyer have to constantly evaluate whether they see that the interests of all three parties are aligned, and at any point that they’re not the insurance company and or the lawyer can say we need to separate this out,” Hoch told the Record. “That’s part of the role that they have to do. It’s not that we’re all locked in as one and are forced to be in that spot… I understand how some may see it as a conflict.”

Magnús Bernhardsson, chair of Arabic studies and professor of history, expressed concern at the Oct. 26 meeting over the WPD’s conduct and lack of action from the Select Board over the last few months regarding the allegations of sexual harassment and admitted instances of racism. In his private capacity, Bernhardsson said he has attended town vigils on nationwide police brutality and marched to the police station with other residents this summer. He, along with other faculty members, sent a private letter in September to Mandel that Bernhardsson said encouraged the College “to be open and transparent in all discussion and plans on rethinking campus security including the College’s relationship with the WPD.”

The erosion of trust caused by the WPD’s actions, Bernhardsson said, has made him worried about the potential presence of WPD officers on campus. 

“You know, I personally just feel very uncomfortable knowing the fact that the Williamstown Police Department walk around campus with guns,” he said. 

While Bernhardsson said he was happy to hear Johnson’s statement of apology, he said, “I wonder why it took so long. But ultimately what is most important here is not what he said but that there will be concrete, explicit actions that reflect new, more inclusive practices that are based on broader definitions of safety and security.” 

Others are also looking to hold Johnson accountable to his apology as he moves forward in his position. Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement Bilal Ansari, a member of the DIRE Committee who has previously advocated for both Hoch and Johnson to be placed on administrative leave pending an outside investigation, told Johnson at the Select Board meeting that he planned to “hold [his] feet to the fire.”

“I serve on DIRE to make recommendations for improvements,” he said in an email to the Record. “In this capacity I hope to offer restorative practices in a supportive role to our town government.”

On Thursday, the Berkshire County Branch (BCB) of the NAACP sent a letter to the Select Board calling for an independent third party investigation into WPD misconduct, and for Johnson, Hoch, “other problem officers” and Craig Eichhammer, who was on the Berkshire DA’s Brady list, to be put on administrative leave.

The letter, which was signed by Dennis Powell, the President of BCB NAACP, criticized the Select Board for “dereliction of duty, a failure to safeguard citizens, and poor governance.”

Powell wrote, “The decision of the Select Board to protect the Manager and Chief suggests that the Town only views certain citizens as worthy of protection and, among those whom the Select Board considers worthy of protection, Blacks and Jews are not included.”

This article was updated on Nov. 12, 2:57 p.m. to reflect a letter from the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP to the Select Board.