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Williamstown Police Union Calls on Select Board to Have Officers' Backs

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The local police union Monday accused the Select Board of not supporting law enforcement against "unfair and false allegations."
In a letter to Town Manager Jason Hoch, Officer Brad Sacco, the president of Massachusetts Coalition of Police Local 424, accused the Select Board and the Diversity Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee it appointed this summer of fostering an "environment of hostility" toward law enforcement.
"May I point out that there are no less than 16 other individuals who come to work every day and night 24/7 to protect and to serve the people of this great community," Sacco wrote. "Yet while continuing to do this, the department has received ZERO support publicly from the Select Board. In fact, the Select Board has sat idly by and watched while a very small, one sided group has continued to tear away at every practice in our agency. For police officers, other public safety personnel, or any municipal employee — such a lack of support and blanket disregard by the executive body of this town is unacceptable."
In a 900-word letter with the subject line, "Hostile Environment Toward Williamstown Police and Responsibility of Select Board and Dire Committee," Sacco wrote that morale on the force is low and its members and their children are facing "backlash" from community members.
Sacco declined to respond to an email from asking information about the genesis of the letter, specifics of the negative treatment received by officers and their families and whether the local is filing a formal grievance against the town.
In the first line of the union's letter, it cites the creation of the DIRE Committee as having worsened the "environment of hostility" against the local police department.
Sacco's letter does acknowledge the national conversation about race and policing that has intensified since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. But the police union representative writes that in Williamstown, the conversation has been too one-sided.
"There is an important public conversation happening in communities across the U.S. about the state of racial equality, social justice and the role of policing in being part of solutions to improve those conditions for people of color and all citizens," Sacco wrote. "We value that conversation, have meaningful input to add and wish to be a part of it here in Williamstown.
"But the work of the DIRE Committee to date, and the lack of leadership by the Select Board, suggests there is no place for us at the table."
To date, the DIRE Committee has not had a formal presentation from a member of the Williamstown Police Department at one of its weekly meetings. It has held a dialogue with Hoch, who, like the Police Chief Kyle Johnson and the town itself, is named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit by a Williamstown sergeant alleging racism and sexual misconduct in the Police Department.
The DIRE Committee has an open-door policy for public participation at its meetings, and while much of the public comment at the meetings has been critical of the police, several of the committee's members repeatedly have called for voices representing different points of view.
And at DIRE's Sept. 21 meeting, committee member Bilal Ansari told the story of a positive dialogue he had with a local officer.
On Monday, resident Ralph Hammann addressed the DIRE Committee from the "floor" of its virtual meeting to ask why the panel does not advocate to have a representative from the Police Department appointed to the committee.
Hammann, who said the local police force is being "victimized," thought it was obvious a member of the department should be included.
"All that has been happening in the past few weeks with the … demonization of the Police Department, whether real or a mere perception, that needs to be addressed," he said. "This seems to me a perfect time for a member of law enforcement … Certainly out of the 16 or so members of the Police Department, there must be one who would at least be willing to come to your meetings."
DIRE Committee member Aruna D'Souza said members of the department are constrained from answering some of the questions that the committee wants to ask, and she noted that community members, like Hammann, who want to speak on behalf of the police are welcome to address the committee.
And D'Souza pushed back on the notion that the DIRE Committee needs to make gathering input from the police a priority at this stage of the committee's process.
"This work starts -- and we have decided as a group that the work starts -- with the people who are most vulnerable and who have experienced harm," D'Souza said. "If you're worried that we're never going to talk to the police, then all I can say is you have to sit with the process. We cannot do anything without talking to the police eventually. But we feel the need, this is how this committee works, to start not with the people who are allegedly perpetrating the harm or in the positions of power in which this harm occurs.
"We are starting with people who feel like they have been harmed."
The police union's letter indicated that it does not believe any harm has been done.
Twice in Sacco's letter, he denies that the actions of Police Department personnel play a role in the current criticism the department is receiving.
"Morale in the department is the lowest it has ever been, by no fault of our members," he wrote. "Much of this has been created, encouraged, and perpetuated by the hands of the town-appointed DIRE Committee with absolutely no evidence or data to support the committee's hostility toward law enforcement."
At another point, Sacco wrote, "Public distrust of our agency is the highest it's ever been, by no fault of our department members."
The claim of "no fault" likely will raise some eyebrows around town.
Many of the allegations made in support of a federal discrimination suit against the town are repeated from a filing last year with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
The town's response to the MCAD filing refutes some but not all of those allegations.
The town, for example, does not explicitly deny an officer had a photo of Adolph Hitler in his locker; it only denies Chief Johnson was aware of the photo prior to the filing. The town does not deny an officer allegedly exposed himself to a local resident in her home and later lied about the incident to the State Police; it acknowledges that Johnson referred the incident to the State Police, which chose not to press charges, and that the officer involved was "appropriately disciplined."
The town does not deny that white dispatcher yelled the "N word" in the presence of a Black Williams College student who was receiving a tour of the station in 2014. The town again says the employee involved was appropriately disciplined. asked Sacco whether, in light of those undisputed incidents, it was fair to say the Police Department was receiving criticism "by no fault" of its members. The union president declined to respond.
"At this time, we are not at will to discuss this any further," Sacco wrote.
Hoch said he would let the Select Board comment on the letter. Select Board Chair Jane Patton, who also serves on the DIRE Committee, declined to comment on Monday afternoon.
The next open session of the Select Board is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 14 (rescheduled from its regular Monday meeting night because of the Indigenous Peoples Day holiday).
On Thursday, the Select Board has scheduled its ninth executive session since the Aug. 12 release of the lawsuit filed by Sgt. Scott McGowan.

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Williamstown Housing Trust Commits $80K to Support Cable Mills Phase 3

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust last week agreed in principle to commit $80,000 more in town funds to support the third phase of the Cable Mills housing development on Water Street.
Developer David Traggorth asked the trustees to make the contribution from its coffers to help unlock an additional $5.4 million in state funds for the planned 54-unit apartment building at the south end of the Cable Mills site.
In 2022, the annual town meeting approved a $400,000 outlay of Community Preservation Act funds to support the third and final phase of the Cable Mills development, which started with the restoration and conversion of the former mill building and continued with the construction of condominiums along the Green River.
The town's CPA funds are part of the funding mix because 28 of Phase 3's 54 units (52 percent) will be designated as affordable housing for residents making up to 60 percent of the area median income.
Traggorth said he hopes by this August to have shovels in the ground on Phase 3, which has been delayed due to spiraling construction costs that forced the developer to redo the financial plan for the apartment building.
He showed the trustees a spreadsheet that demonstrated how the overall cost of the project has gone up by about $6 million from the 2022 budget.
"Most of that is driven by construction costs," he said. "Some of it is caused by the increase in interest rates. If it costs us more to borrow, we can't borrow as much."
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