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Williamstown Police Hold Community Dialogue on Racial Justice

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Drea Finley of Williams College's office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Inclusion speaks during Wednesday's video conference.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Police Department on Wednesday listened to input from residents about how it can do more to reach out to people of color at a time when violent, racist actions by police in other parts of the country dominate the national conversation.
 
"I want you to know there are people of color in this community who are hurting," said Drea Finley, the dialogue facilitator for Williams College's office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
 
"Even though I'm new to the community and have had nothing but positive experiences, that does not eradicate the fear in my heart. I was nervous getting on this call this morning. I'm nervous as I articulate these thoughts … that this is the first impression you have of me. But I will stand in the gap and continue to show up. I believe in building community, and it matters."
 
Finley, who identified as a "newer face and a black face" in town, spoke in an hourlong, Zoom-based community dialogue, the first virtual version of the WPD's "Coffee with a Cop" initiative.
 
Chief Kyle Johnson and Lt. Mike Ziemba talked about the local police force's efforts to police the town of 7,700 and how police across the commonwealth participate in in-service training, including on topics like de-escalation intervention.
 
Johnson and Ziemba also were clear in their condemnation of the police actions that led to the death of George Floyd.
 
"There was no justification," Johnson said of the actions depicted on video in the moments before Floyd's death. "If he resisted getting in the cruiser — getting on his neck? I can't speak for all other parts of the country, but Massachusetts doesn't have that in the training.
 
"Even in the heat of the moment, if he's fighting, they get him on on the ground and he's secure. That's what? Thirty seconds? And they had enough manpower there. Nine minutes? God, no."
 
Johnson was speaking in response to Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas, who asked the officers to give some insight into what might have led to the tragedy in Minneapolis.
 
"I'm not asking you to defend them," Thomas said.
 
"And I won't," Johnson answered. "My mind is as blown as everyone else's."
 
Ziemba acknowledged that the death of Floyd and other victims of police brutality apparently tied to racial animus is a blight on the profession.
 
"It's embarrassing to us when something like this happens," Ziemba said. "That Minnesota officer is representing all of us to an extent. Everyone who is good at this job shakes their head."
 
"And not just that officer but the officers who stood by and watched," Johnson added. "There's no excuse for that."
 
Ziemba and Johnson contended that their 12-person force has an advantage over big city police departments because the officers are not just numbers. Johnson and his first lieutenant have regular interactions with all of the department's personnel. Ziemba speculated that an officer like Minneapolis' Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with murder in Floyd's death, might never even meet the chief of police in a big city department.
 
"Supervisors [in a big city department] may not know they have a problem child like that," Ziemba said. "If we ever had an issue like that, we'd know because we're so small, and an officer like that would never be allowed to continue to work here. We'd say, 'This is not the place for you, and you're gone.'
 
"We have the luxury of being small. In a bigger department like that, a rogue officer might be able to survive like that for 15 years without being detected."
 

Police Chief Kyle Johnson participates in Wednesday morning's Coffee with a Cop event.
 
Several residents on Wednesday morning's video conference, including Finley, wanted the officers to know that while their department may be different, instances of racial insensitivity or worse are still very much possible.
 
"Instead of hearing a story like Drea's about being fearful of police as an exception or a one-off … I think it's a safe assumption that every person of color in this community is going to feel a visceral, deep-seated fear in any encounter with a policeman in uniform," Williams' Assistant Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Molly Magavern said. "That's an assumption that might help police in a more positive interaction and a less confrontational one."
 
Johnson said he agreed but pointed out that the WPD's interactions with the public are few and far between, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he hopes to have more meetings like Wednesday's — preferably in person when social distancing restrictions end.
 
Mount Greylock Regional School graduate Margot Besnard encouraged the police department to be proactive in its outreach to diverse members of the community.
 
"You guys could go into Mount Greylock or Williams College without your uniforms on and have a discussion with students of color or faculty of color that might be more informal," she said. "You might get more ideas … creative solutions that you or your police force never came up with.
 
"Actively seek out more conversations, not once a year but once a month with people who look and sound really different than you guys."
 
Town Manager Jason Hoch said late Wednesday that while the WPD had tried some in-person Coffee with a Cop events in the past, the online version Wednesday — a little more than a week after Floyd's death on Memorial Day — was significantly better attended, with more than a dozen participants.
 
"We scheduled this one at the beginning of the week, recognizing that an opportunity for dialogue right now could be potentially more meaningful than issuing a statement," Hoch said.
 
Mount Greylock teacher Tom Ostheimer said some of the most powerful images of the past week have been when police officers are captured communing with protesters and asked whether Williamstown Police officers might join with a demonstration being planned Friday evening at Field Park.
 
"That certainly is possible," Johnson said. "This is the first I'm hearing about this. We are all in this together. So, yes, that is good to know. I understand your concern and share it with you."
 
Hoch, who is responsible for overseeing the Police Department, pointed out that while the small-town force has the advantage of knowing all its members and having officers who live in and around the town, there is a flip side to that coin.
 
"When Mike [Ziemba] talked about the advantage of our department being of here and from here, there are many ways that helps us, but it also means the experience we bring does not at all prepare us to understand and be ready to engage with the lived experience that other people are bringing to some interaction," Hoch said. "Kyle [Johnson] and I have talked about this. There are things we do, things we say that are received very differently just because it's an experience that we have not lived ourselves.
 
"I think what I offer is we know that, and we're working on it."

Tags: community forum,   community policing,   

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Williamstown Planning Board to Look at Impact of Land Regulations on Equity

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board wants to make a concerted effort to assess potential bylaw changes with an eye toward increasing equity.
 
Picking up on a conversation that has dominated discussions in the town's Select Board in recent weeks, the Planning Board last Thursday began talking about how it can advance social justice through its work.
 
"I think this is really essential work for us to be doing," said Peter Beck, who participated in his first meeting since his election to the board in June. "Issues of racial equity are not tangential to planning and land use but deeply wrapped up in it."
 
Chair Stephanie Boyd raised the issue toward the end of a meeting dominated by discussion about bylaw amendments the board plans to bring to next month's annual town meeting.
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