WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the town's racial equity committee Monday emphasized that calls for accountability in the town's police department are not attacks on the town's police officers.
Rather, they said it is an effort to support law enforcement officers.
"I feel like what we have all been trying to work toward here is that police officers who are not doing all of these things we've been shocked and dismayed and violated by are supported," Aruna D'Souza said. "And part of that support is also making sure their colleagues are acting to the highest standards and their colleagues aren't doing things that bring the whole department down."
D'Souza, who is serving on the search committee for an interim chief of police, told her colleagues on the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee that she realizes her personal beliefs about policing in America are "at the far end of the spectrum," but that does not mean she is attacking the members of the Williamstown Police Department.
"Whether or not people want to believe it, all of us are working under the assumption that no one wants harm to come to the people who work for this town in the Police Department or anywhere else," D'Souza said. "We're all, actually, working toward making their work environment better, so every police officer who says, 'Not all police officers are like that,' those are the police officers we're working to help or working to assist.
"It's important for me to say that because I think my comments have been assumed to be uncaring, I would say, and they're really not."
The DIRE Committee has talked extensively about the issues arising from a federal whistleblower discrimination lawsuit against the town by a WPD sergeant and, more recently, the revelation that members of the department illegally searched town residents' information on the state's Criminal Justice Information System database.
The committee's meetings also have been a forum for residents who have been angered and frightened by the allegations in the lawsuit, calling for the removal of the police chief and town manager, both of whom have either left or are leaving the town's employment in the fallout of the lawsuit.
Some of that discussion created a backlash, both from the members of the police force -- the union last fall sent the Select Board a letter critical of the DIRE Committee -- and from members of the public, who have attacked the committee on social media.
D'Souza said she is not a member of the Facebook group where much of that criticism has occurred, but she is aware of a widely read post by a former WPD employee who accused the DIRE Committee of taking an "abhorrent" approach to policing issues and talked about the stress department personnel are under.
"I think the person wrote in order to say that therefore everyone should lay off the police and not criticize them, which I don't agree with, but what seems important as the [town's] needs assessment is happening is: If there are police officers who are under mental health stress because of the work they do, the police union or the police department, the town should be making resources available so they are able to deal with that stress," D'Souza said. "I don't think, 'Our jobs are really hard, so, therefore, never criticize us,' is the logical way of thinking. But, 'Our jobs are really hard and we need to address mental health issues that result from that,' is the way of dealing with it."
DIRE Chair Mohammed Memfis agreed with D'Souza and said the issue she was raising came up in a recent meeting between several members of the committee, acting Police Chief Mike Ziemba and Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington.
"Everything is sort of painted in that mutually exclusive light, when really both of these things can be the case and both of these things can be problems," Memfis said. "We have to be honest with ourselves in saying that these are issues we should address, and let's support each other in trying to address these real issues.
"We have pointed to a list of concerns regarding the WPD, and something that came up in the meeting is some of the personal issues that officers have experienced. Both of those things are the case. That does not mean that what people have to do is say, 'This set of issues are the right issues or the true issues, and the other is not.' They both are. This is our town that we're talking about, which means, at the end of the day, our interest should be on making our town better, which means addressing all of the issues that we point to."
Bilal Ansari, another frequent critic of actions taken by WPD members, said one of his concerns might surprise some people.
"A few weeks ago, I heard there was a list of 20 people who were searched, and I called Mike Ziemba and said, I have two things that I need to ask you," Ansari said. "I think you know one of them. But the first thing I want to ask you is: How are you doing? Because you have to be going through a lot of stress right now, and I'm worried about your health. Are you taking care of your heart? Are you walking enough? I can't imagine, as a human being, going through the amount of stress in that department.
"I don't say this to a lot of people, but my father was a cop. He was hurt on the job and retired hurt, but he was a cop. You can say what you want about my voice and being heavy-handed, but, ultimately, as Aruna said, it is for the upliftment of that department. Those officers are human beings."
The town did draw some criticism in Monday's meeting for its lack of transparency around the CJIS violations, but the criticism was framed in terms of an overreliance on advice of the town's legal counsel rather than an effort to willfully withhold information.
Andrew Art, who in the past has praised Ziemba for going above and beyond what was required legally for notifying residents of the illegal searches, brought up a response received from the town when he inquired about what specific items of his personal information were accessed.
"I requested the dates and times I was searched, and that was denied," Art said. "Part of the denial was there's no internal affairs investigation ongoing. That left me confused. I think it might be legal semantics about what's been happening."
Art, a lawyer, said the response to his inquiry raised transparency concerns.
"The approach of saying, 'There's no internal affairs investigation,' reads to me like, 'We're not going to be transparent unless you file a complaint that triggers an internal affairs investigation,' " Art said. "To me, that's not a signal that signals transparency. As a lawyer, I get it, but it's not the transparent approach."
Art also said that requiring a formal complaint to get more information does not help anyone, including the acting chief, members of the department or residents who would have the onus to take an additional step to find the truth.
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