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Attendees at a daylong conference at Mount Greylock Regional School on Saturday vote on the most pressing issues in the town's community-police relationship.

Williamstown Conference Identifies Steps to Rebuild Trust in Local Police

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Better opportunities for dialogue, more training and support for officers and acknowledgment of past incidents in the Williamstown Police Department were themes that emerged from a daylong symposium on policing at Mount Greylock Regional School on Saturday.
 
Nearly 80 individuals participated in a series of small group discussions that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the current public safety environment and what meaningful changes could address the latter.
 
The Department of Justice's Community Relations Service facilitated the event under its Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships program.
 
More than 90 percent of registrants attended the event despite Saturday's snowstorm. Those who did engaged in moderated conversations in groups of 10 or 12 where they talked about the issues that have ruptured the trust between many community members and law enforcement and how to fix that breach.
 
"The issues we're dealing with today are issues that have been dealt with since the start of modern policing," DOJ conciliation specialist Michael David told the full group before the first of two breakout sessions.
 
"The dialogue today is the beginning of Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships. It is not the whole process."
 
Williamstown's interim police chief Michael Ziemba invited the DOJ to bring its nationally-tested program to town to help rebuild relationships with community members that were damaged by the 2020 revelation of allegations of racist and sexually inappropriate behavior inside the department.
 
Although the lawsuit that raised those allegations ultimately was dropped, a subsequent independent investigation funded by the town lent credence to many of the most concerning charges.
 
Saturday's event was attended mostly by town residents but also included representatives of law enforcement, both from the Williamstown Police Department itself and outside agencies.
 
Among the issues identified by focus groups in the morning session were a lack of accountability, inappropriate uses of authority, a lack of oversight, inconsistent discipline of personnel, few opportunities for police and community members to talk collaboratively and a failure to understand that some residents have lived experiences that include negative interaction with police – either locally or before moving to the area.
 
Not surprisingly, transparency was a common theme in many of the issues reported out by the individual groups to the full body.
 
The attendees had a chance to vote on the top issues in a list of about 20 to emerge from the morning discussions. Then, after lunch, attendees were assigned to different focus groups to talk about potential solutions.
 
Those changes also were subjected to ranked choice voting by all attendees at Saturday's event, and the full lists of issues and solutions were referred to a group of more than a dozen residents who were named Saturday to a new Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships Council.
 
David explained that it will be the council's job to take the sometimes nebulous and aspirational solutions that emerged from Saturday's one-day event and turn them into actionable steps the town and its police department can take.
 
While that council's work is just getting started, Saturday's event ended with an optimistic note of reconciliation.
 
Bilal Ansari, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the Police Department in the last two years, addressed the conference to say he appreciated the participation of local police officers in the SPCP event's small-group discussions about the issues the town is confronting.
 
"I acknowledge that if anything I said in the past was too emotional or caused discomfort, it was not my intent," Ansari said.
 
He was immediately followed by Officer Brad Sacco, who as president of the local police union drafted an October 2020 letter asking the Select Board to support local law enforcement at a time when it was heavily criticized.
 
"We were going through trying times," Sacco said. "It didn't feel like we had much support. The Select Board didn't seem like it was on our side. It felt like we didn't have a voice.
 
"Now, the department is moving forward, and that's what we want."

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Williamstown Planners Still Split on Upzoning Proposals

By Stephen Dravis
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – It took just two meetings of the newly constituted Planning Board for old fault lines to reemerge.
 
About two hours into its July meeting, the board took up the question of how to address the numerous zoning bylaw amendments that were "referred to committee" by June’s annual town meeting.
 
Several members of the five-person board indicated that some of the articles still merited consideration by the body and could return to town meeting in some form and with further explanation and analysis.
 
Roger Lawrence was not having it.
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