WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — While continuing to pressure the town to commission an independent investigation into allegations of racism and sexual misconduct in the Williamstown Police Department, the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee Monday emphasized that its effort to address inequity goes beyond the lawsuit that has roiled the community since it came to light last month.
A resident addressing the DIRE Committee during the public comment portion of its weekly virtual meeting suggested that the necessary discussions about the federal lawsuit filed against the town, police chief and town manager threatened to overshadow ongoing conversations that predate the legal action and led to the creation of the committee itself in June.
"I don't want us to lose sight as a community of that fact that we have this crisis around addressing concerns around our public safety to be a distraction from another piece of work that's really important, which is the conversations that we need to have with each other as a community about race and equity right now," Wendy Penner said. "I just sometimes worry a little bit that we don't displace our need to address these very visible, very distressing changes from the other process work of having those conversations.
"I don't mean just you as a committee. I mean we as a community, talking to each other, neighbor to neighbor, because I think a lot of people are really struggling about how to engage and what does it mean to be an anti-racist, what is a microaggression, all of that stuff. And we need to figure out what is each of our roles as community members in all that."
Committee member Kerri Nicoll said the panel's community engagement working group, on which she serves, recently discussed the concern that Penner raised.
"We also recognized that right after this committee formed and just as we were beginning to talk about how do we build relationships, how do we talk to each other, we were hit with this crisis," Nicoll said. "We are, as a subcommittee, working on community engagement, really trying to think about how do we respond to these immediate concerns while also continuing to do the work to build community relationships, to get people talking about the broader issues that are so important.
"We share those concerns and want to do both pieces of that work. It's kind of a balancing act right now."
Drea Finley noted that the issues surrounding the Williamstown Police Department are connected to broader equity concerns.
"These are intersectional issues," Finley said. "In the same way we're going to address the ways in which our police are working in our town or the ways in which our community is going to come together, we have to also be addressing race in our community and the ways in which we're going to understand anti-racism work. Those things are not divested from one another. Those things are absolutely intersectional."
Aruna D'Souza quoted Boston University historian Ibram X. Kendi as writing that "racist attitudes and ideas did not produce racist structures, they proceeded from racist structures."
Structural change, therefore, is essential, D'Souza argued.
"There is no way of changing people's hearts and minds if everything that structures your society is telling you that some type of people are less valued and less valuable than other types of people," D'Souza said. "What [Kendi] says is there's no way that changing hearts and minds will change structures. We have to change the structures in order to bring hearts and minds along.
"It's important in this sort of work and addressing these issues that we have to do it with a global perspective. We have to do it with a larger, holistic understanding."
One structural issue front and center for the DIRE Committee is the town's response to the concerns raised in Sgt. Scott McGowan's lawsuit and specifically the fact that the town's Select Board, which has supervisory authority over the town manager, did not know of the allegations raised in the suit when they first were exposed in a complaint before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in November of last year.
On Monday, Jane Patton, the current chair of the Select Board and a member of the DIRE Committee, told that panel the elected board learned of the allegations when the complaint was filed on Aug. 12, clarifying the language in a vaguely worded Aug. 18 Select Board statement
that said it "recently" learned of the allegations. She made the same point later Monday evening in the Select Board's meeting
Andrew Art pointed to a town bylaw that gives the Select Board the authority to oversee any complaint.
Chapter 4, dash 9, gives the [Select Board] the power to control litigation on behalf of the town, and not just litigation but any claim against the town to which the town is a party," Art said.
D'Souza noted that the fact that the Select Board was not looped in when the town, police chief and town manager were named in the MCAD complaint strengthens the case for the DIRE Committee's recommendation that the Select Board now put Town Manager Jason Hoch and Police Chief Kyle Johnson on administrative leave pending investigation.
In other business on Monday, the DIRE Committee discussed a preliminary analysis
of data about traffic stops by the WPD and ways the committee can engage the police department on issues not involving the lawsuit.