It’s time to remove the WPD chief and hold the town government accountable

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Editor’s note: This editorial mentions instances of sexual assault, sexual harassment, racism and anti-Semitism.

The racial harassment of a Black student. A photograph of Hitler hung in a station locker for three years. The sexual assault of a town resident. These alleged incidents, some confirmed by the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) and others neither confirmed nor denied, took place while Kyle Johnson was chief of the WPD. In each case, a lawsuit against him says, discipline was minimal at best. 

Yet on Oct. 26, Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 announced his decision to retain Johnson as chief. In light of such egregious admitted and alleged misconduct, and the justified erosion of trust that has resulted in the community, particularly among BIPOC, we vehemently disagree with Hoch’s decision. Johnson should not be retained as chief.

We support the NAACP Berkshire County Branch’s call for Hoch to be placed on administrative leave to allow for an independent third-party investigation into the conduct of the WPD, Hoch, Johnson and the Town. In addition, the three members of the Select Board who supported the decision to retain Johnson — Anne O’Connor ’86, Jeffrey Thomas and Hugh Daley — should be voted out of office and replaced with candidates who will stand for the safety of all community members. 

Hoch’s decision to retain Johnson comes as the police chief and WPD officers under his command face allegations of racial harassment, anti-Semitism and sexual assault in a federal lawsuit against the WPD.

The Town admitted that in 2014, a Black student at the College was touring the Williamstown police station when a white dispatcher entered the station and shouted the N-word to other WPD officers. The dispatcher remained with the WPD until Thursday, when he resigned after acknowledging that he made a series of violent, racist anti-Black Facebook posts following the police killing of George Floyd over the summer. 

The resignation of the dispatcher is a step in the right direction. However, had there been competent leadership who recognized the threat to Black community members that the dispatcher posed, the WPD would have taken action years ago when the dispatcher racially harassed a Black student.

We do not stand alone in our call for Johnson’s removal. Local organizers in the Williamstown Racial Justice Police Reform group and two Select Board members have advocated for the same. In an interview with the Record, Select Board chair Jane Patton put it simply: “Some things just are not repairable.” 

The erosion of trust in the community was recently brought into stark relief when a staff member at the College who is Black and queer received a violent and threatening hate letter at their home in Williamstown, and the thought of contacting the WPD made them worried for their own safety. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, President Maud S. Mandel underscored that the relationship with local law enforcement needs to improve for many community members to feel safe. “Trust isn’t there right now,” she wrote in an email to the Record at the time. 

Hoch and the Select Board should have factored more community input into the decision to retain Johnson, including from the new Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) Committee, tasked with advising the Select Board. Select Board member O’Connor, who met individually with members of the DIRE Committee, said the group advised her “there would be no path forward with Johnson.” But three of the five members of the Select Board still advocated for retaining Johnson. 

Hoch, who has the ultimate legal authority to hire and fire the WPD chief, said in an interview with the Record that he would be “foolish” to ignore the Select Board if the majority opinion changed. 

It is also important to recognize that the WPD and the Select Board’s failures do not exist in a vacuum. For years, members of the College community, particularly BIPOC students, faculty and staff, have spoken out about the ways community members of color do not feel safe and welcomed in Williamstown. Students, faculty and staff have planned marches, written op-eds, organized boycotts and cancelled classes to organize against the College and its surrounding town for its failures to support its BIPOC community. 

This activism is not unique to the current moment, or to Williamstown or the WPD itself. In 2007, faculty organized the Faculty Staff Initiative, a grassroots group organizing around the ways BIPOC faculty and staff felt unwelcome in Williamstown, reminiscent of many of the same calls made today. Meanwhile, the WPD’s failures fit within a larger pattern of police violence and systemic racism throughout the country. But that those in power within a system of policing have abused it, in many ways, should not come as a surprise. While advocating against Chief Johnson’s retention and the Select Board’s decision will not solve these problems without larger systemic change, this is a form of immediate action that the town must take to protect BIPOC members of the community.

The past few months leading up to the 2020 presidential election have demonstrated students’ and the College’s capacity to organize around voting and advocacy on the national level. However, these calls for civic engagement should not end with the national election. The failures of WPD, last month’s hate letter and the work of DIRE prove how much work must be done not just on a far off national scale, but also in our own community.

President Mandel, we ask that you join us in our call to remove Johnson. We also urge those who are registered to vote in Williamstown to take the Select Board members’ actions into account and vote in this May’s Select Board election. 

Meanwhile, we urge College faculty, staff and students to voice their opposition to Hoch and the Select Board for their decision to retain Johnson as chief. Their emails are listed below. 

Jason Hoch: JHOCH@williamstownma.gov

Select Board: selectboard@williamstownma.gov