Town community engages in facilitated dialogue about police-community relationships

Ella Marx and Julia Goldberg

The facilitated dialogue event on Saturday took place at Mount Greylock Regional High School. (Photo courtesy of Niku Darafshi.)

The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Community Relations Service and the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) implemented the DOJ’s Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships (SPCP) program for the Town this Saturday. Through the program, attendees have the opportunity to participate in a facilitated dialogue that centers around identifying issues that impact the relationship between police officers and Town residents and developing potential solutions to those issues.

The list of issues and solutions determined by the approximately 80 participants will be compiled by the DOJ and has not yet been made public. In the coming weeks, the DOJ will deliver the finished report to a council, composed of around 20 volunteers who attended Saturday’s program, who will then work with Interim WPD Chief Mike Ziemba to implement specific solutions. The DOJ will guide the council’s members through their first few meetings.

Participants at the event told the Record that community members discussed building trust and increasing communication between the WPD and the Town community. Members of the WPD also raised concerns over officers’ mental health and over the public’s understanding of police processes.

Although many participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to engage in the dialogue, some also expressed concern over the focus of the dialogue and the demographics of the turnout.

Lilly Wells ’23, a student at the College and Town resident, attended the event and told the Record that she appreciated the intentions behind the program. But Wells said she felt disappointed that the process of accountability was not a more significant part of the conversation and that she felt the focus of the day was shifted away from the responsibility of the WPD to rebuild trust with the Town community after incidents of misconduct committed by its officers.

“It was disappointing to see in the afternoon that a lot of the issues that were then prioritized and redistributed into groups focused only on the perspective of the police and not on rectifying the harm done to the community,” Wells said.

Furthermore, certain Town demographics were low in representation at the event, according to attendees Jeff Johnson, a member of the Select Board and the Town’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) Committee and Randal Fippinger, a member of the DIRE Committee and the event’s planning committee, as well as Visiting Artist Producer and Outreach Manager at the ’62 Center for Theatre & Dance.

“When I look around the room, I’m missing people of color and a demographic of [ages] 18 to 45,” Johnson said on Saturday. Still, Johnson expressed a general satisfaction with the premise of the event. “This [kind of event] is how you try to bring a community together.”

“Whether 300 people show up or three, it’s an opportunity to come out and be heard,” Interim WPD Chief Michael Ziemba said in an interview with the Record as the event began. “Yes, we can add training, yes, we can revamp policies, yes, we can seek accreditation to a national set of standards. But where are we without communication back and forth between the community that we are part of and we serve and us?”

Ziemba told the Record that he heard about the SPCP program from a member of the DOJ in July 2021 and soon decided to collaborate with the DOJ to bring the SPCP program to the Town. “They do this all across the country, usually after large incidents that impact the police department and the community and the trust,” he said.

This event follows the January release of the results of an independent investigation commissioned by the Williamstown Select Board that concluded that from 2002 to 2019, former WPD chief Kyle Johnson and former WPD sergeant Scott McGowan engaged in multiple instances of sexual and racial workplace harassment.

The Select Board hired attorney Judy Levenson in February 2021 to conduct an investigation into claims made by McGowan in an August 2020 federal lawsuit against the Town, Johnson, former Town manager Jason Hoch ’95, and the WPD. The lawsuit alleged that McGowan faced retaliation for opposing acts of sexual assault and racial harassment by Johnson and other members of the WPD.

The Board also hired private investigator Paul L’Italien in March 2021 to supplement Levenson’s investigation and look into the illegal searches of Town residents’ information by WPD officers and an employee complaint by nine members of the WPD alleging that McGowan bullied and verbally harassed other members of the WPD.

At the dialogue, participants split their time between four sessions. Small groups of attendees compiled a list of issues regarding the relationship between the WPD and the Town community before convening to present those ideas to all attendees and to vote on which issues they deemed most important. Afterwards, participants split up to consider possible solutions to the issues with the most votes and then again gathered to communicate those solutions with one another.

The SPCP planning committee, which consisted of community members selected by Ziemba, convened every few weeks to organize the details of Saturday’s event. Planning committee members told the Record that the group contained a broad spectrum of perspectives on the relationship between the WPD and the Town’s community.

One of the issues in the relationship between the WPD and Town residents identified by the event’s participants was a letter that president of the local police union Brad Sacco drafted on behalf of the police union in October 2020 to Hoch that alleged the Select Board and DIRE were contributors to animosity towards the WPD. “Public distrust of our agency is the highest it’s ever been, by no fault of our department members,” the letter stated. “This creates a dangerous and unsafe working environment.”

Several officers from the WPD and other agencies attended and participated in Saturday’s event, which Sacco characterized as a step in the direction of building stronger relationships between the WPD and Town community.

“I believe the overall conversation was necessary and eye opening for all of us,” he wrote in an email to the Record. “We as a department look forward to future community oriented events like this one.”

Tony Boskovich, a Town resident who served on the event’s planning committee, said that he was pleasantly shocked by what he characterized as the significant focus on the issue of police officers’ personal concerns, such as their mental health. “It was not just ‘What are the issues in the police department?’… but community members were concerned about the officers themselves — their safety, their well-being,” he said in an interview with the Record. “I was flabbergasted.”

Reflecting on the event, he characterized the dialogue as a positive step forward for the community. “This is a fantastic first step to bring more awareness to the community about policing and to bring the concerns of the community to police officers themselves,” Boskovich said.

Wells agreed that the event served as an opportunity for productive dialogue to occur between police officers and Town residents. However, she said that the focus on officers’ personal concerns minimized the importance of the need for dialogue around rebuilding trust between the WPD and Town community after past instances of misconduct committed by its members.

“There seemed to emerge an idea that from the perspective of the police public mistrust is based on a misunderstanding of police work,” Wells said. “That is not true. It was actually the public’s awareness of the police’s misconduct and subsequent denials by police of that misconduct that caused the mistrust. It was disappointing to see the narrative take that direction, and to not focus on the misconduct that happened and the need for accountability.”

Fippinger applauded Ziemba’s initiative in organizing the event but also noted that the event lacked complete representation of voices that are often sidelined during Town-wide discussions. “I was thrilled with the turnout for the SPCP event, but, sadly, it was mostly the folks that already felt empowered to be engaged,” Fippinger wrote in an email to the Record. “I was sad that the diversity of the event was not reflective of the Town’s diversity. To me, that strongly signals that we still have a lot of work to do.”

According to Bilal Ansari, the assistant vice president for campus engagement at the College and a member of the local police accountability group Williamstown Racial Justice and Police Reform (WRPJR), no Black community members served on the event’s planning committee, which he found disappointing, he told the Record in an email. Ziemba told the Record that he could not confirm the identities of the members of the planning committee.

Despite his dissatisfaction, Ansari wrote that he attended the event because he valued the opportunity to discuss building accountability and transparency between the WPD and Town community. “I really needed to hear from, talk to, and work at healing strained relationships with the WPD,” he wrote.