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Williamstown Select Board Favors Investigation of Police Lawsuit Allegations

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
04:04AM / Wednesday, January 06, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday agreed to pursue an independent investigation into allegations of racism and sexual misconduct in the Police Department.
 
But it struggled with how that investigation and a parallel effort to re-envision policing in the town of 7,700 will fit into a timeline for replacing the chief of police.
 
The board held a special meeting to gather for the first time since mid-December announcements that then-Chief Kyle Johnson was resigning and the plaintiff in a lawsuit raising those allegations was dismissing the action. The panel faced a number of complicated questions embedded in its single-item agenda, which advertised a discussion of "Next steps for the Police Department."
 
After more than two hours of discussion among the five board members and another 40 minutes of public comment, it was apparent those steps will involve four main tasks: the search for Johnson's replacement, an assessment of the town's policing needs, a review of police policies and the probe into allegations that stretch back for more than a decade.
 
The last action has been one of the main demands of residents who have spoken up since Sgt. Scott McGowan's lawsuit dropped in mid-August. The members of the Select Board for months said they were unable to pursue a third-party investigation while the suit was active, a restraint that was removed on Dec. 14.
 
"To me, the real key here is that this is, wherever we land, that it's fully transparent, it's fully independent," Chair Jane Patton said. "We should take great care to identify who the investigator's client is … so that when [the results are] made public, every effort has been made to make sure it has none of our bias, or [Town Manager Jason Hoch's] bias or the town attorney's bias.
 
"This is the piece we need to do right and do well so everybody who sees the report -- they may not like what they see, but they will know it was fully independent and done with transparency and the intent to share it."
 
Patton earlier Monday had told her colleagues on the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee that she planned to push for a third-party investigation at the subsequent Select Board meeting.
 
One member of the latter board made the case that an investigation of old allegations would be neither useful in going forward nor completely satisfying to those who have demanded it.
 
"My view is that the most important and, maybe to me the only important thing is: Is there evidence of systemic bias now in our police department, and, if so, how do we address it," Jeffrey Thomas said. "That's paramount.
 
"The allegations … were framed in order to support a lawsuit, so that colors the way they were shaped. Also, I think we're going to run into … personnel privacy issues. We'll run into the same sorts of sets of roadblocks we've already encountered. And, third, for those things that can't be explored, it's going to end up being a 'they said/they said' type of thing without a clear resolution."
 
Thomas said he favored efforts that focus on the current state of the department rather than getting into the specific allegations from the past.
 
He said that if the town does investigate the allegations in the McGowan lawsuit, it needs to manage the expectations of residents about what such an investigation could say and what it could not say.
 
"There will be constraints around personnel privacy issues," Thomas said. "These are state laws. They're not constraints we're imposing. … There are things that can't be there that will be disappointing and frustrating to some in the community."
 
But two other members of the five-person board said information about what occurred in the past can be helpful to moving the department forward.
 
"I grant you the topic of the investigation was the hardest one on this list," Anne O'Connor said, referring to an eight-point memo that framed Monday's discussion. "I just feel that we have to engage in some kind of investigation. So much has already been said about the allegations, and people have elaborated on them in their own minds.
 
"It's murky, and I yearn for there to be more clarity on the points in the allegations."
 
Hugh Daley agreed.
 
"I think we can use the allegations sort of as a framework to determine what the culture is," Daley said. "I keep thinking about the Hitler photo … not only was it hung, it then disappeared into the woodwork and people walked by it for ages. I want to understand why somebody didn't just grab it and pull it down.
 
"I share Jeffrey's concern. It's difficult for me to see how we get to a definitive answer on each of these allegations, but it seems like we could use some of them as discussion points for an investigator to go in … and use them as a framework to see what the culture is how these things occurred.
 
"How do we prevent it from happening again? That seems to me to be the ultimate goal."
 
The board, which did not have any vote warned on its agenda, did not take a vote on how to proceed with an investigation, but the discussion ended with Andrew Hogeland committing to look for investigatory firms who might be able to do the job.
 
Patton said an investigation of allegations of past misconduct does not need to be taken as an attack against the department's current personnel.
 
"You just want somebody who wants to come in and make things better," she said. "I would encourage all the department to try to see it through this frame, which is: There's some stuff that's broken. There's some stuff that needs to be fixed. We really want you to be part of the solution. It's way more fun to build something up than to tear it down.
 
"We're not doing this to completely dismantle the staff and people who are there today. We're doing this to bring clarity and light to what is going on. Here's what's working, here's what's not. Where we might be helpful is to continue to encourage [Acting Chief] Ziemba and the other staff to lean into this, to try to make the department what many of them, I imagine, would like to see."
 
Lt. Michael Ziemba's role as acting chief came up a number of times Monday in the context of whether the town should bring in an interim chief to relieve him of that duty while it gears up for a search for a full chief.
 
Hogeland told his colleagues that based on his initial conversations with search firms, the process of hiring a new chief could take up to six months. But Williamstown's process could have an even longer time horizon if the board decides to first finish the independent investigation and a comprehensive assessment of community needs that the town is commissioning.
 
Social worker Abby Reifsnyder and Kerri Nicoll, a professor of social work at Massachusetts College of Liberal Art and member of the DIRE Committee, talked with the board about the project they have been advising Hoch to pursue.
 
"We know that mental health needs are sometimes responded to by the Police Department, and we know that's probably not the best response," Nicoll said. "So we started out by thinking: What might be some alternatives to that? How can we do some exploration of what the police are responding to, what people wish the response could be, and where we can find a place to meet?"
 
To that end, the town is hiring a researcher to both look at the current practice and engage the community about what role it wants the police to play in addressing mental health issues.
 
At a couple of points on Monday, members of the board asked whether that research could be completed -- either in whole or in part -- in time to inform a late spring or early summer interview process for a new police chief.
 
The social workers cautioned against having that expectation.
 
"Good research, if you want to do good research, takes time," Reifsnyder said.
 
Hogeland said if the board decides to wait until the research and investigation are finished before conducting a search for a full-time chief, he is inclined to bring in an interim chief. Several board members said they do not want to overburden Ziemba, who has regular duties as a lieutenant in the department in addition to the role of acting chief.
 
Regardless, Hogeland said he would like to have a firm on board to conduct a police chief search by the end of January.
 
"I'd love to have the social workers give us their schedule in a week or two, so we know how to integrate with the rest of the search committee," Hogeland said. "These things are easy to slow down, but as long as we have the chance to start something, I'd like to start something. If we have to wait for information, we'll wait."
 
"As long as slowing it down is an option," O'Connor said, emphasizing the need to do the assessment before proceeding with a search. "A hired professional consultant is going to have an agenda of speed and efficiency. That's what they're all about. Whereas we have a local team whose input means a lot to me. They're already in the area. They have ideas of ways to move forward and help us. That input is really important to me."
 
Other points of discussion during Monday's meeting included:
 
The structure of a full-time police chief search, when it happens.
 
Hoch told the board that he favors a process that centers on a search committee with a wide variety of community voices and includes panels of residents posing questions to finalists for the position. He recognized that he ultimately has the responsibility for hiring and supervising the chief according to the town charter, but he feels the times call for a different approach.
 
"I'm the hiring authority, but I'd love to be in a position where a search committee can recommend a candidate to me," Hoch said. "I'd rather have a consensus candidate from the group and have my job be largely ceremonial."
 
• The concurrent review of current police department policies.
 
Hogeland said the town continues to look for a consultant qualified to review its policies and bring them in line with both best practices in the profession and the community's needs identified in the social work study.
 
"It's pretty clear that the people who know the most about police policies are former policemen," Hogeland said. "I know there's some interest in making sure this is not just some policeman issuing all over again policies that have been issued in a flawed manner for decades. I think we're a little bit stuck currently on not having a former policeman do this.
 
"The chore is to look for someone who is proven to have access more forward-looking or current policies … and/or supplementing their input with input from other sources."
 
Hogeland pointed to the work of the "8 Can't Wait" police reform campaign as one source for alternative police polices the town could consider.
 
Hogeland and Hoch said the hope is that the town can do most of the work on developing new policies before a new police chief is hired and allow that new chief to complete the last "20 percent" of the work so he or she has some ownership of the final product.
 
"We would like to hear from the community what policies they'd like to carve out for attention," Hogeland said. "I'm assuming use of force would be one. I've heard interest in the police on preservation of rape kits and how that all works. The DIRE Committee recommended a change in the policy on internal affairs reports. … If you have things you want to change, give us your list and we'll roll them in there."
 
• A new memorandum of understanding between the Police Department and Williams College's Campus Safety and Security department.
 
Hogeland said the town is in the early stages of a discussion with the college about how best to make sure the town and gown security agencies are working together "productively and efficiently."
 
Daley said it sounds like a good opportunity to engage in "cross-training" sessions between the two departments to make sure there is a consistent experience with law enforcement for all town residents.

Tags: williamstown police,   

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