WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town manager Monday indicated that when it comes to rebuilding trust between the community and its police department, all options are on the table — including the removal of the police chief.
Jason Hoch and Select Board member Anne O'Connor joined the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee for more than two hours of its three-hour meeting to talk about the process the town wants to use to create a new vision of policing in the Northern Berkshire community.
DIRE Committee member Aruna D'Souza pressed the pair about whether that conversation could include a step that many in town have been calling for since August's release of a discrimination suit by a sergeant against the town, Hoch and Police Chief Kyle Johnson.
"If the community says, 'We cannot move forward with the people who are in place,' is there a chance of that happening?" D'Souza asked. "If this whole process is supposed to happen with limitations — and that's a big limitation — that would, to me, feel disingenuous. If we're all being expected to do the really hard work that I think these conversations will require, it means there's actually a willingness to make the drastic changes. Some changes may not feel as comfortable as others."
Hoch began his answer by saying that Johnson shares Hoch's commitment to restoring faith in the department but ended up acknowledging that no options — including Johnson's departure — are off the table.
"I'll start from the premise that the chief and I are both committed to doing what's right," Hoch said. "I wish I was giving you a better answer. … As someone who tries his damnedest to be humane in management but is constrained sometimes by what is actionable, things are all on the table. We just have to have an honest discussion about what that means.
"I can't give you a better answer than that. That's where I'm at."
Later, in response to a question from an attendee at the meeting, Hoch said Johnson's contract with the town had been renewed for three years in June — two months before the lawsuit came to light but months after the town was aware of a complaint before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that contained many of the same allegations.
O'Connor, in answering the same question from D'Souza, said the recent investigation into racist social media posts by a dispatcher at the department and his ultimate separation from the department demonstrate the accountability that town government expects going forward.
She and Hoch came to the DIRE Committee for help developing a strategy
to engage the community about what it wants from its police department. The Select Board has agreed that conversation needs to happen before the town can review and, if necessary, overhaul the WPD's policies and procedures.
"We have to think about where we want to be at the end and start from there," Hoch said. "I think that, wherever we are in the community, we may disagree on where we are now and where we've been. But we all have a sense of care and service for building the community we want. How do we actually put words around that? What does that look like? How do we think about the practices to get there?
"We started thinking about how do we put together a working group that helps convene that conversation. What does that look like? And what resources do we already have in place?
Those thoughts led Hoch, O'Connor and Hugh Daley, who are tasked with developing a strategy for WPD policy review, back to the DIRE Committee, Hoch said. The Select Board had created the diversity panel in June as a standing advisory panel to the elected board.
The DIRE Committee did not have a ready-made solution for O'Connor and Hoch on Monday but Chair Mohammed Memfis promised that his group — which includes a couple of trained dialogue facilitators in its ranks — will continue to engage with the Select Board on the question.
In the meantime, several attendees at Monday's meeting gave O'Connor and Hoch some direction for the kind of dialogue they should create.
Margot Bensard, who spoke from the floor and serves on the Williamstown Racial Justice Police Reform group, said the dialogue about the future of policing should take several forms, including accepting written testimony and holding one-on-one interviews for residents who might not feel comfortable speaking at a public meeting.
"My other recommendation is to figure out how to record the data from that," Besnard said. "If you come back and say, we decided not to do anything after we did 100 interviews, that might harm trust more.
"My third recommendation is decide ahead of time to prioritize voices of people who suffer violence in Williamstown over those who don't. … You should make a commitment to center the voices of people who suffer violence. This includes interpersonal violence and police violence."
DIRE Committee member Andrew Art agreed.
"The outcome of this should not be majority rules," Art said. "It should be a process that focuses on protecting the minority who are the most vulnerable."
That said, committee member Bilal Ansari advocated for an inclusive process that hears from all sides of the issue.
"We have to start in a restorative way," Ansari said. "We have to listen to the extreme ends of Williamstown — the youth who are calling for defunding, they need to be heard; and the people who are saying 'all lives matter' and 'blue lives matter,' they need to be heard.
"It needs to be conversations across the community in meaningful ways facilitated so that everybody is heard, everything is captured. And we distill it to principles that come from everybody. And then those principles, we share out … let people respond to them, listen to them, respect them. And then those inform the policy.
"It's going to be difficult. But we have to trust that process."