Three Williamstown Police Department (WPD) officers illegally searched the names of vocal WPD critics in Registry of Motor Vehicle (RMV) records as accessed through the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), Acting Police Chief Michael Ziemba told the Record today. He said that 20 people were searched in the few months before former chief Kyle Johnson resigned in December and Ziemba stepped in as acting chief.
Those the three officers searched include police accountability organizers who have pushed for reform in the wake of an August lawsuit alleging racial harassment, anti-Semitism, and sexual assault committed by WPD officers. The Town confirmed some of the allegations, and Johnson resigned as a result of the public fallout over the lawsuit. Last month, the Town’s Select Board hired an independent investigator, Judy Levenson, to investigate the lawsuit’s allegations.
WAMC broke the story this afternoon.
In a statement sent to the Record, Ziemba said that the officers lacked the justification needed by Massachusetts law and the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services to search the RMV records. Ziemba said that the WPD has begun an investigation into the searches.
An unnamed individual who knew of the illegal searches informed some of the people searched on Feb. 22, including Williamstown Racial Justice and Police Reform (WRJPR) member Peggy Kern. Upon learning of this information, those individuals contacted Ziemba and collectively agreed that the WPD should formally notify the others by mail that they were part of the search.
“To be targeted for unlawful searches, for police officers to be using the tools of law enforcement to search individuals who have been critical, or who share an ideology, is outrageous,” Kern said. Kern added that the partner of one of the people involved in police reform activism was searched, even though they were not involved in advocacy themselves.
Andrew Art, a member of the Town’s Diversity, Inclusion, Racial Equity (DIRE) advisory committee who was also searched, said that further investigating the motives for the search is critical.
“You know, I think the other part of the story that hasn’t yet been told is, why were the searches being run?” he said. “The common thread amongst people that know that they’ve been searched so far has been that it’s a group of people that’s been outspoken in various ways in the community for racial justice, equity, police reform. And so the use of the searches in that way to profile a specific set of people is a concern. I think we need some dialogue about why that happened.”
The investigation is ongoing, Ziemba said. “Some disciplinary actions have already been taken, and all officers have been required to complete, and have completed, retraining in the requirements for access to the CJIS system,” he said. “In addition, security and logging controls to the CJIS system have been tightened, and logs of all searches are being regularly reviewed by myself.”
Ziemba said that he has discovered no illegal access to Criminal Offender Record Information and no “secondary dissemination of information.” He said that once the investigation concludes, he will notify everyone whose information was accessed; so far, he has been in contact with about half. Details of the investigation — including the names of the officers, the nature of the disciplinary actions, and the identity of the whistleblower who tipped off some of the people searched and Ziemba — remain unknown.
For Kern, this revelation is just another example of larger problems in the department after months of turmoil. “There’s a mythology around the beauty of Williamstown,” she said. “This is a reminder to us that systemic means systemic.”
Kevin Yang contributed reporting.