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Police Chief Kyle Johnson, seen in this file photo, tendered his resignation effective immediately to the Board of Selectmen on Monday night.

Williamstown Police Chief Resigns, Litigant Says He Will Drop Suit

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Police Chief Kyle Johnson is stepping down immediately from his post, and the police sergeant whose lawsuit sparked months of criticism of the WPD announced his intention to withdraw the suit.
 
Johnson's departure was announced early in Monday's Select Board meeting by Town Manager Jason Hoch, who, along with Johnson and the town, is a named defendant in a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by Sgt. Scott McGowan.
 
That lawsuit, which came to light in August, raised allegations of sexual misconduct and racist behaviors in the WPD that touched off months of protest in the North Berkshire community.
 
McGowan, who released his statement through resident and supporter Janice Loux, wrote that his decision to end the lawsuit came in response to Johnson's departure.
 
"After receiving the news, I have reflected on my current litigation with the Town, including the climate of distrust in our community," McGowan wrote. "As such, I have reached a difficult decision to withdraw my federal lawsuit as I see this moment as an opportunity to join in our community's healing."
 
His statement did not indicate whether he had notified his attorney, Boston's David A. Russcol, of his decision to withdraw the suit.
 
In reply to a Monday night request for comment, Russcol wrote, "I expect to have further comment on this [Tuesday]."
 
McGowan's three-paragraph statement went on to say that he hoped the town can move forward with the lawsuit out of the picture.
 
"The last four months have been challenging for everyone in our town, which has deeply moved me," the sergeant wrote. "As we near the end of 2020, I wish to begin the new year by helping the police department's new leadership install modern, progressive policing initiatives with all of our community members' help. I believe it will be hard to make progress as a police department in the shadow of a lawsuit; therefore, I must put the police department's and our residents' best interests first versus my own."
 
In announcing Johnson's departure from the department, Hoch indicated that the town's chief of 16 years also was making a decision to help heal the community.
 
"Earlier this summer, the [Select Board] and I discussed a separation agreement with Police Chief Kyle Johnson and reviewed that with town counsel in consideration of various employment law and contractual obligations associated with an agreement," Hoch said. "We all later agreed we would not make a change either voluntary or involuntary at the time, and the chief committed to the work to engage with the community and build trust.
 
"Subsequent to that announcement, it became increasingly clear that, despite that commitment, the chief's continued presence in the department would be an obstacle to genuinely engaging in a constructive healing process between the community and it's police department."
 
Hoch said Johnson used the Thanksgiving holiday to reconsider his decision to stay.
 
"Upon his return last week, we spoke, and he agreed that for the health of the department and the health of the community, that we should revisit the separation from town service," Hoch said. "Earlier this afternoon, Kyle Johnson and I finalized the agreement for separation.
 
"Today is his last day as chief of police of Williamstown. Tomorrow morning, [Lt.] Michael Ziemba will begin serving as acting chief of police."
 
Hoch said he hopes next month to move forward on finding an interim chief.
 
The work of finding a permanent replacement will dovetail with an ongoing conversation in town about the role of the Police Department, Hoch said. That conversation was spurred in part by the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and largely by the allegations raised in the McGowan lawsuit.
 
"I think the first part is we have to get a little reflection on ourselves," Hoch said. "This isn't just me dusting off a police chief job description and throwing it out there or hiring a consultant to find us some candidates. We want to make sure we talk about what our hopes are for that next chief and also be thoughtful about -- this is a two-way street. We also need to sell the opportunity to that future chief and make them want to come to Williamstown."
 
Hoch said he hopes to get the search for a replacement going by spring and he anticipates bringing in various community members and town staff to help assist in the selection.
 
"I don't want to pick this candidate individually, nor do I think the five of you [Select Board members] want to," he said.
 
Select Board member Andrew Hogeland agreed that the hiring process will be informed by discussions about the kind of police department the town wants and needs.
 
"In terms of the next steps going forward, I think the town knew we were on a track to have a community conversation about what kind of police department we want," Hogeland said. "I think now that conversation has expanded to include what kind of police chief we want.
 
"There will be a lot of work to do, a lot of discussion to do. I'm looking forward to it. I think this is an opportunity for the town to really think hard about something that they haven't needed to think about for decades until very recently. I think this will be a positive next step."
 
Hogeland and Select Board Chair Jane Patton in October said they were in favor of a change of leadership at the WPD during the many closed-door discussions the Select Board had in the wake of McGowan's lawsuit. On Monday night, both Hogeland and Patton thanked Johnson for his decision to step down.
 
"I want to thank Kyle for stepping up and making this decision," Patton said. "I'm sure it was hard for him, and I wish him all the best as he moves forward."
 
Before the end of Monday's meeting, it was apparent that for some residents, Johnson's departure would not provide the full healing many in the town have been seeking for the last four months.
 
"I'm glad Kyle Johnson has taken the right steps toward integrity and leadership," Wade Hasty told the Select Board. "Our contentions have not been about a single police chief. Our contentions have not been about a police department."
 
The target of activists in the town has been systemic racism, Hasty said.
 
"We have seen Kyle Johnson do his part, resigning of his own volition, to correct these wrongs," he said. "It's not the police chief himself who makes up such a system. It is inclusive of the town manager and it is inclusive of a Select Board that chooses to keep the town manager.
 
"Make this the start to a legacy of holding institutions accountable, to see any actions to obscure transparency as an affront to the electorate. This includes asking the Select Board members who voted in favor of systemic biases, by any other name, to resign. And if they will not do the 'hard right' over the 'easy wrong,' to start the necessary steps to oust them in favor of those who would honor our principles. This includes asking the town manager to resign. If they will not do the 'hard right' over the 'easy wrong,' start the necessary steps to oust them in favor of those who will honor the principles, which means removing the buffer of the Select Board that would protect such wrong-doing."
 
None of the Select Board members expressed an intention to resign. One, Anne O'Connor, elaborated on her response to Hasty's comments.
 
"It seems that Wade accused us of systemic bias, system racism," O'Connor said. "I recognize the role of structures in society in systemic racism. I reject the accusation that my decisions and behavior have been through-and-through informed by systemic racism. I've always examined my own behavior over and over again. I've reconsidered everything I've decided. It's been a long process. There are a lot of different things to consider.
 
"I will add that I have, at various times, thought about resigning. But I have wanted to stay on as long as I felt I could be an effective part of moving us forward toward transformation and change, which I do think is necessary."
 
Loux, who has been a consistent voice calling for turnover in the chief's office and the town manager's office, said Monday that she thinks McGowan is trying to do the right thing by dropping the lawsuit.
 
"I thought Scott showed leadership when his suit was filed because it exposed what was going on in our police department," Loux said. "I think Scott is showing leadership now, and he will work with the community to affect change."

 


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Williamstown Trust OKs Emergency Mortgage Program; O'Connor Won't Seek Re-Election

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday decided to move ahead with an emergency mortgage assistance program for residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, approved a solution for a problem vexing a different town committee and learned that one of its members will be rotating off after May's town election.
 
The board member in question is Anne O'Connor, who made her colleagues on that panel the first to learn that she will not seek another three-year term on the Select Board this spring.
 
O'Connor, who occupies the trustee position designated for a member of the Select Board, noted that she brings a particular perspective to her work with the trust and all her town service: that of a resident who is a lifelong renter and who lives in Williamstown housing that was created to be affordable.
 
"Hopefully, I've also brought some reflections and useful comments as much as possible," O'Connor said.
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