On Dec. 15, Williamstown Police Department (WPD) Sergeant Scott McGowan withdrew a lawsuit he filed this August against the Town of Williamstown, Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 and former WPD Chief Kyle Johnson. The withdrawal of the lawsuit came immediately following Johnson’s resignation as police chief on Dec. 14.
“As a result of many people asking difficult questions, and recent actions by the Town and the Select Board, [McGowan] believes that Williamstown is committed to making the changes necessary to have a Police Department that is run in a way that everyone can be proud of,” said David Russcol, McGowan’s attorney, in a statement shared with the Record.
Russcol told the Record that Johnson’s resignation led McGowan to withdraw the lawsuit, in recognition of what the statement called a positive shift. The statement also said that McGowan believed his lawsuit “was becoming an obstacle to change” by stalling an independent investigation. When the lawsuit was first filed, the Williamstown Diversity, Inclusion, Racial Equity (DIRE) advisory committee and President of the College Maud S. Mandel had called for an independent investigation, but the Select Board suggested in an Aug. 18 statement that the Town would not commission such an investigation, citing restrictions due to the pending lawsuit.
Although the Select Board has not yet said whether it will now move forward with an investigation into the allegations against the WPD, Jane Patton, chair of the Select Board, told the Record that she doesn’t “see a reason not to.” She emphasized that the focus of any investigation should be general.
“It’s critical that we focus more broadly on the overall questions that were presented in the lawsuit,” Patton said. “Namely, is there a pervasive discriminatory atmosphere in the department and or certain [discriminatory] officers?… I am in support of [an investigation]. I imagine my colleagues are, but I’m loath to speak for them.”
Bilal Ansari, a member of DIRE, said that any investigation should have the intent to create change within the Town government.
“I’m only in favor of an independent investigation if this is meant to inform policy and structural changes,” Ansari said. “Especially if this helps to elucidate priorities for our town government.”
The lawsuit had caused a months-long uproar among Town residents over its allegations of sexual assault, racial discrimination, racial harassment and anti-Semitism committed by Johnson and WPD officers, and showed that Williamstown was not exempt from the national reckoning that began this summer over racial injustice and police violence. The lawsuit also alleged that McGowan experienced illegal retaliation for his opposition to incidents of misconduct.
Some of the allegations have been confirmed, including a 2014 incident in which a WPD dispatcher shouted the N-word when a Black Williams student was being given a tour of the station. Other allegations — that an officer sexually assaulted a town resident in 2011 and that the same officer hung a photograph of Adolf Hitler in his station locker — were neither confirmed nor denied by the Town. Hoch decided to retain Johnson in October, despite calls from town residents and local police accountability organizers for his removal. Then, in November, the dispatcher involved in the 2014 racial harassment incident resigned after acknowledging that he had made a series of racist, anti-Black Facebook posts.
While Patton did not specify further as to what an investigation would examine, she said that she hopes it can be part of a larger effort to rebuild trust within the community. Additionally, she expressed hope that WPD officers do not take any investigation personally.
“My hope is that they recognize and understand that none of this is personal about the individual officers themselves and the community,” Patton said. “I want every officer to know that we support them. And everything that we’re going through right now is to create a department that is in keeping with where we’re at today and heading into 2021.”
Former lieutenant Michael Ziemba, who was named acting chief as the Town begins its search for a new police chief, said he is committed to helping chart the WPD’s next steps.
“I look forward to temporarily leading the police department into its next chapter and ensuring that the entire community can count on us,” said Ziemba in an email to the Record. “I am also committed to being a part of the search for a new Police Chief when that time comes.”
“I plan to continue to listen to the community and look at each problem or concern before us through every [lens], not just my own, before making any decisions,” Ziemba added. “I have an open door and mind and would like to be part of the process of healing wherever I can.”
Russcol, McGowan’s attorney, said that McGowan would welcome the opportunity to help with the search process “to the extent that the Town and department want him to be.”
In rebuilding trust between the Town, WPD and Williamstown community, Ansari said that he hopes the WPD and Town will implement new policies to ensure accountability and transparency, suggesting a “community defined and determined” policing system over one determined by “state unionized contracted standards.”
“It is time to come together and listen to each other for the purpose of restoration of trust,” Ansari said.