WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee on Monday expressed their displeasure that incidents at the Williamstown Police Department alleged in a federal lawsuit against the town were not investigated at the times that they occurred.
As part of its research into town policies and procedures, the DIRE Committee requested records of internal investigations at the WPD for the last 10 years.
"The response back summarizing was that … nothing was classified as internal affairs records within the Williamstown Police Department since Jan. 1, 2010," Andrew Art told his fellow committee members. "There was one investigation that was handled by the Massachusetts State Police that was identified, but the records related to that investigation were not provided to the committee on the grounds that they had not been provided to other requesters. The basis for an exemption [was] the current litigation involving the [Sgt. Scott] McGowan complaint."
The investigation handled by the State Police likely is from 2011, when, according to an allegation in McGowan's lawsuit, a member of the department went to the home of a female resident, repeatedly asked her to have sex with him, exposed himself to her and tried to put her hand on his penis.
Both McGowan's suit and the town's response to the same allegation in a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination indicate that Chief Kyle Johnson "referred the investigation of the complaint to the State Police."
Members of the committee were concerned both by the referral and by the lack of any investigation of other incidents alleged in the lawsuit — the use of a racial epithet in the station by a dispatcher, the posting of a photo of Adolph Hitler in an officer's locker, among others.
"What was the time lapse from the initial call of the complaint to the time that the state came in and did their investigation?" Bilal Ansari said. "This is why there's generally an internal investigation done first, so there's no time lapse. In the case of a sexual assault, time is precious. Time is evidence.
"If the one who is making the complaint says, 'My arm was bruised,' but the state doesn't come in for weeks and the bruises are barely visible, that evidence of the intensity of the bruise is lost. That's why I'm saying, why is it OK that there was no internal investigation?"
On Wednesday, Chief Kyle Johnson told iBerkshires.com that he was notified of the 2011 incident at 11 p.m. on a Friday night and spoke with a Massachusetts State Police detective about it at 7 the next morning.
Art told the rest of his committee on Monday that the decision to withhold material pertinent to the lawsuit was upheld by the Secretary of State's office and that the decision was tied to the suit, not the nature of the information sought.
"The response indicates it's a question of when they'll be released, not if they'll be released," Art said.
Later in the meeting, Ansari expressed his frustration with the pace of the McGowan lawsuit, which simultaneously raised allegations about sexual misconduct and racism in the WPD and hamstrung the town's effort to publicly address the allegations.
"I can't wait until this lawsuit is over," Ansari said. "If we all could just put a strong prayer out there that the stars align and this lawsuit is over with and done. A lot of healing needs to begin. People need to meet around that table, and one of the first ones who needs to be around that table is Sgt. McGowan and members of the force. We need to hear him, see his face, hear his story.
"If we can get this lawsuit done and over with, I would appreciate it because my community needs to heal. … It's Christmas. Let's just hope the miracle of Christmas makes this thing go."
Art said the lack of evidence of internal investigations at the WPD is an issue that needs to be addressed.
"It's not sitting well with me that incidents that have been so harmful to people in our community have not been the subjects of investigations," Art said. "It's not sitting well with me at all that those investigations are not available to describe to the public what steps were taken to investigate, what the circumstances are, whether there's truth as alleged or not.
"I think we can do something about making recommendations that those investigations take place and those facts come out."
In other business on Monday, the DIRE Committee focused on planning its activities over the next week and for 2021.
On Sunday, the committee members have agreed to meet virtually for a "retreat" that will allow the panel's members — some of whom have never met face-to-face — to get to know one another a little better.
Although the committee has no plans to take formal action at the special session, it will be a public meeting and available for view through the town's website.
"Of course, individuals are welcome to view the retreat," DIRE Committee Chair Mohammed Memfis said on Tuesday. "As many of us have never met one another outside of a DIRE meeting, the retreat will be more informal than our traditional context. It will likely be more personal and intimate."
A more formal meeting is planned for Monday, Dec. 14, when the DIRE Committee will welcome presentations from Heather Bruegl of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and two Williams College students who have been studying the history of exclusion in the town.
Looking to next year, Art suggested that the committee invite District Attorney Andrea Harrington to address the panel in light of her office naming a member of the Williamstown Police Department to the Brady List, a formal notification to potential defendants that certain law enforcement officers have credibility issues.
Kerri Nicoll said the committee should plan early next year to meet with a social work research facilitator being hired by the town to help with "the development of a plan that supports mental health needs and other needs that connect to mental health in the community, with a biopsychosocial and social justice approach."
Nicoll, a professor of social work at MCLA who joined a group of social workers in advising Hoch on the request for proposals to hire a facilitator, said Monday that one likely will be on board late this month or in early January.
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