WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Nearly 20 residents on Monday made often impassioned pleas for the town to take action regarding allegations of sexual harassment and racism in the town's Police Department.
The Select Board spent nearly two hours listening to some of the 70 people who dialed in to participate in the remote meeting, with many of those speaking calling for Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch to be placed on administrative leave and an independent investigation to be launched.
"I'm asking you to get off your hands and make a statement and do something that's going to bring back the confidence and the security of the women in this town, primarily, and Black lives here in this town," said Bilal Ansari of the town's Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee, which has been advocating for an investigation since shortly after the allegations became known. "That's what I want to see. That's what I want to hear, not a bunch of excuses. ... Do something. It's time for action."
The town was rocked in mid-August by a federal lawsuit filed by police Sgt. Scott McGowan, who alleged incidents of sexual harassment and racism and claimed that he had been retaliated against for filing complaints with the town and last year with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
The filing caught the Select Board off-guard as they had not been privy to the MCAD filing or any complaints against the Police Department.
"If I could, if I could shout this from the rooftops, I would be absolutely, unequivocally crystal clear the Select board was not aware of the MCAD filing and did not participate in preparation of the response to that administrative complaint," said Chair Jane Patton. "Whether we should have known earlier is an ongoing discussion we're having with the town manager."
Patton described the board's discussions with Hoch as 26 hours in at this point. The town manager was not in attendance and Patton said he was on a previously scheduled vacation that the board had agreed he should take.
"There's so much work going on outside of public view that we hope we can share with you in time. And I fully understand that there are going to be those that say, yes, that's not good enough," said Patton. "We have committed to having independent reviews of the town's employment practices and policies, as well as the Police Department's policies and procedures, and we state unequivocably that the Select Board does not condone racism or sexual harassment or abuse in our workplaces, or in the Police Department's interactions with the public, we don't condone it period. End of story."
Select Board members said they understood that it was hard for residents to be patient in letting the matter work its way through the courts. The board has more information that it cannot divulge because of the court case, several said.
"I am beholden to act based on the truth, the information I'm receiving. And I do," said Select Board member Anne O'Connor, who acted as moderator during the hearing. "It's painful to say this to people who have come with such pain. ... I think we're doing the best we can do, where we stand with, with the information that we feel comfortable sharing."
She acknowledged that some residents felt that the court case was taking precedent over immediate concerns regarding the Police Department, a sentiment her colleagues also iterated.
"What I'm saying to my, my friends, my neighbors, fellow townspeople. I support the board's action plan today," said board member Hugh Daley. "We are on the right path. It is not moving at the pace we would like. But we have to take the steps."
McGowan's allegations, some of which were not specifically disputed, included a dispatcher using the N-word when a Black college student was at the station, harassment of a Black officer (who later left), and sexual harassment of a local woman by another officer. The dispatcher and officer are still employed. There was also a picture of Hitler in one of the police lockers, which the chief says he was not aware of until the complaint was filed.
"Because you can't possibly understand this, I'm gonna tell you how it feels to see a photo of a police officer's locker in my town with a picture of Hitler. The man who ordered the murder of my grandparents," said resident Arlene Kirsch. "I can't sleep. I have nightmares. This, like no other experience in my 71 years, has left me feeling beyond furious and beyond terrified and shockingly, that police officer still works here.
"I help pay his salary. Give me a break."
A number of the speakers on Monday expressed their own fears of how the local police would interact with them based on what they'd read in the complaint, and in light of ongoing protests after several high-profile deaths of Black individuals at the hands of police.
"We're not any different right now from Kenosha (Wisc.) and Minneapolis, or any other racially charged town or city in this country that is spewing and roiling in pain and suffering and most people cannot sleep at night," said Jessica Dils, calling for the immediate suspension of Johnson and Hoch. "And you are crazy to think that we are not vulnerable right now to violence in our town in this beautiful Village Beautiful, knowing that there has been no accountability, or discipline to officers with a picture of Hitler in their locker. With racist rhetoric spewing from their mouths when they see a person of color."
Dils and other members of the DIRE Committee accused the board of using the committee as shield and expressed their disappointment that it was DIRE that had to call for action.
"I just wanted to say, I truly don't understand why it's so difficult to do an independent investigation, and generally I don't understand why there's so much inaction, it feels to me that it's because we don't want to hurt people's feelings," said Twink Williams Burns. "Being so worried about shaking up the status quo and investigate tells me that you are OK with my current status quo as a black woman. And that is when I'm pulled over, should I be more afraid of being sexually assaulted or should I be more afraid of having someone act overtly racist towards me?
"The fact that sexual assault and hurling the N-word went essentially unpunished is proof to me that those were not shocking events. And if they were not shocking, it's likely because they were commonplace."
One caller, Stephanie Lenhart, said they needed better policies to protect people but also defended Hoch as a good person to work with, saying maybe he had a reason for not informing the board. And others took issue with her for a comment about not understanding how people would feel unsafe.
"We've now had ... two white women who have come on and said, 'I don't really understand how other people may not feel safe and I understand it's important that they do feel safe but I've never had a problem,'" said Aruna D'Souza. "It starts to sound to me like the same old thing that happens whenever harassment complaints are made. Well, he never harassed me or the police have never treated me badly, or I haven't had that experience, if someone has a Hitler poster in their locker, it doesn't affect me.
"We have to start realizing that our individual experiences aren't everyone's experience, and that right now the experiences of people who don't have a problem with the way policing is conducted in this town are perhaps less crucial than the experiences of people who have had real problems with the way policing is experienced in this town."
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