Lawsuit brought by WPD sergeant alleges sexual assault, racial harassment by Williamstown Police Chief and unnamed officers

Jeongyoon Han and Kevin Yang

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

The lawsuit, which was filed by a WPD sergeant, Scott McGowan, alleges that:

  • Chief Kyle Johnson sexually assaulted McGowan four times, and other female and male officers;
  • A dispatcher said the N-word while a Black Williams student was touring the station in 2014;
  • An officer hung a photograph of Adolf Hitler in his station locker; 
  • Johnson did not adequately discipline an officer who sexually assaulted a town resident in 2011;
  • An officer of color left the WPD due to racial harassment in 2016;
  • McGowan faced illegal retaliation for criticizing Johnson and the WPD for these incidents.

A sergeant at the Williamstown Police Department (WPD), Scott McGowan, filed a federal lawsuit today against the Department, WPD Chief Kyle Johnson, Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch and the Town of Williamstown for what McGowan described as retaliation against him for his opposition to instances of racial harassment and sexual assault committed by both unnamed WPD officers and Johnson.

The complaint states, “For well over a decade, the Williamstown Police Department (WPD or Department) has maintained an atmosphere in which racial harassment and hostility to persons of color are tolerated and perpetrated at the highest level, to the extent that one officer of color left the Department just to escape the demeaning behavior of Chief Kyle Johnson.”

The WPD also allegedly “turned a blind eye to sexual assault” committed by Johnson and an unnamed WPD officer, who, according to the complaint, remains on the force. 

Hoch, who has been town manager since 2015, was named as a defendant in the complaint for failing to investigate or intervene after being made aware of Johnson’s alleged behavior, because “his concern was only that the reputation of the Town of Williamstown might suffer if these facts were publicized,” the complaint claimed.

The civil complaint, which was sent to the Record in an email from David Russcol, the attorney representing McGowan, was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts and seeks a jury trial. The suit asks that damages be awarded to McGowan for “emotional and physical pain and suffering caused by the Defendants’ unlawful acts,” and compensation “for any loss of wages and/or benefits, damage to reputation and earning capacity.” It also seeks a court order barring the defendants from committing unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation.

In an email to the Record, Johnson said that, on advice of counsel, he would not comment. Hoch also declined to comment, saying that Williamstown does not comment on pending litigation. 

Alleged racial harassment, hostile work environment

The lawsuit alleges various incidents in which Johnson, who is white, and other WPD officers committed acts of racial harassment and created a hostile work environment for officers of color. The complaint tells of one 2014 incident in which “a dispatcher shouted the N-word in the Williamstown police station” while a Black student from Williams College was touring the station. According to the complaint, Johnson was aware of this incident, and the dispatcher admitted to this conduct, but Johnson took no formal disciplinary action. The dispatcher remains on the force, the complaint said.

A WPD officer, whom the complaint does not name but calls “Officer B,” hung a picture of Adolf Hitler in his station locker in full view of other officers, according to the complaint. The lawsuit includes a 2018 photograph of the locker as evidence. “The Town and the Department did nothing to address the implications for the workforce of having to see that photo posted prominently,” the complaint said. “That officer remains on the force.”

The photo, submitted as “Exhibit A” in the complaint, depicts Officer B’s locker from 2018, which features the photo of Adolf Hitler on the right-hand side that was visible to all members of the WPD. (Photo courtesy of David Russcol)

McGowan, who is white, had also raised concerns about racist incidents targeting a Black officer, who is identified in the lawsuit as “Officer C.” According to the complaint, Johnson would clip newspaper articles featuring images of people of color, circle the individuals, write Officer C’s initials on them, and then place the newspaper clippings in the officer’s department mailbox. This conduct occurred for multiple years, according to the complaint.

On “many other occasions” Johnson would rub his eyes when people of color entered the police station, the complaint claims, then “look back and forth between Officer C and the other person of color, and appear confused as if Officer C were in two places at once.” 

The negative environment led Officer C to seek a transfer to another police department that was willing to accept him, but Johnson and Hoch, who is also white, allegedly held up the transfer. When Johnson asked Officer C for the reason for his transfer, McGowan cited racist incidents including ways “in which Johnson treated Officer C unfairly” and the photo of Hitler, which McGowan, Officer C and others “found offensive.” In response, the complaint claims that Johnson denied the allegations and threatened termination of Officer C on the grounds of untruthfulness.

Claims of sexual assault, harassment

The complaint also claims that Officer B, who allegedly hung the photo of Adolf Hitler, sexually assaulted a Williamstown resident — an act that the officer initially denied to the Massachusetts State Police as they investigated the case. According to the complaint, McGowan received a report in 2011 that the officer had arrived at the female resident’s house uninvited, and appeared to have been drinking. “She said that Officer B repeatedly asked her if she wanted to have sex, and she said no,” the complaint said. “The resident stated that Officer B exposed himself to her and tried to put her hand on his penis.” 

The officer eventually admitted to having committed indecent assault and battery. McGowan advocated for the officer’s termination. However, the complaint states that “Johnson docked the officer a few vacation days and kept him on the force.”

Additionally, Johnson allegedly sexually assaulted McGowan four times in June and July of 2007. “Johnson rubbed his clothed penis up against McGowan’s body on four different days,” the complaint said. “Each time this occurred, McGowan had informed Johnson that his behavior was inexcusable and asked him to stop.”

This conduct was not isolated, according to the complaint. “Johnson, in his capacity as Chief, personally sexually assaulted male and female members of the WPD staff by deliberately rubbing his clothed penis up against them, over their explicit objections.”  

The lawsuit says that McGowan was a survivor of sexual assault prior to joining the WPD, and had been an “advocate on behalf of victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.” 

In a sworn statement to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), Johnson denied sexually assaulting McGowan but admitted to what he called “unprofessional and juvenile locker room behavior.” 

The complaint also said that Johnson had addressed a female police officer as “baby girl” and “bae,” and had disparaged the idea of promoting a female officer of color.

Alleged retaliation

The lawsuit claims that as a result of criticizing the racially hostile environment in the WPD and numerous instances of sexual harassment and assault, Johnson retaliated against McGowan in a “years-long pattern” starting in at least 2007, when McGowan resisted Johnson’s alleged sexual harassment. This began, according to the complaint, with Johnson gradually reducing his responsibilities. 

In January 2019, the complaint said, McGowan wrote an email to Johnson criticizing “silent punishment from you based on my outspoken critiques,” in reference to McGowan’s opposition to sexual and racial harassment in the WPD. The email “incidentally mentioned workplace stress.” A week later, Johnson “suddenly relieved McGowan of duty,” telling the WPD that McGowan “was on administrative leave for ‘health & wellness related’ reasons.” 

Before returning to work, Johnson insisted that McGowan undergo a medical evaluation and psychological evaluation, which McGowan’s doctor said was medically unnecessary. The incident, the complaint states, “damaged McGowan’s reputation within the Department and the Williamstown community.” 

According to the complaint, Johnson admitted in a sworn statement to the MCAD that he had relieved McGowan of duty in part due to the “accusatory language” in the sergeant’s email.

The retaliation culminated in the summer of 2019, the lawsuit claims, with Johnson’s decision to promote a patrolman with no command experience to the newly created position of lieutenant instead of McGowan, who has 15 years of experience.  The lawsuits also claims that Johnson had previously said that he would promote the patrolman, and that “Johnson and Hoch commissioned a sham promotional exam process in which the outcome was predetermined.”

McGowan filed a Charge of Discrimination to the MCAD in November 12, 2019, regarding the allegations of retaliation detailed in the current lawsuit. The MCAD then filed the complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. McGowan withdrew the MCAD complaint in August 2020 to pursue the matter in court. 

This is a developing story. If readers have any information they would like to share with the Record, please email jkh2 and kzy1. We can also be reached at our anonymous tip line.