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Williamstown Select Board Pleads for Patience, Asks for Respect for Police

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
04:00AM / Friday, October 16, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Wednesday released a statement in response to concerns raised by the town's police officers and discussed the process the board is undertaking to review police policies.
 
The board then heard from constituents that the former goes too far and the latter does not go far enough.
 
Chair Jane Patton began the conversation by reading a statement of the board that expressed its support for the local police force while acknowledging some of the issues that have led many in the community to distrust the agency.
 
"The board wholeheartedly supports and appreciates the work of all members of the Williamstown Police Department to ensure our community's safety and security," the statement began. "We recognize and are grateful that many of the members of the department have served our community for decades."
 
The board statement came in its first meeting since the president of the local police union released a letter accusing the board of not supporting law enforcement.
 
The board's statement goes on to acknowledge that "tragic events involving police officers in other communities" have led to intense scrutiny of the institution and refer to local issues with the WPD.
 
"[T]here are factors underlying public distrust of the WPD, including national incidents involving police and people of color, the allegations in the federal court complaint against the Town, and conduct acknowledged in the Town's [Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination] response," the statement read. "The challenge before all of us is how to restore that trust."
 
The statement ended with a plea to respect the local police officers.
 
"We ask all members of the community, even those who may hold concerns about the WPD, to respect and honor its members," Patton read. "WPD members are professionals with extensive training. They are trained to put themselves in harm's way in order to keep our community safe. WPD members deserve support and appreciation from all of us."
 
The final paragraph touched a nerve with several of the residents who spoke during the three-hour virtual meeting.
 
"I just think it's too much to request that people honor someone," Erin Keiser-Clark told the board. "I think what we're getting at is a desire or intention to be respectful. While there are other aspects of this letter I'm really uncomfortable about, I'm just asking for this specific change at this time."
 
Later, Joshua Fredette was more emphatic.
 
"When someone tells me I have to respect somebody, and I have to honor somebody, it really infuriates me, because people have to earn my respect and trust," Fredette said. "Right now, nobody has it. I'm not seeing you all working hard trying to fix things. Given what's happened locally and we're still moving forward as if nothing has happened? As a resident of this town with a biracial family, it's absolutely infuriating to me.
 
"I sit here and hear about policies and consultants, and I work with the state. I'm seeing the same thing happening at the local level that I see at the State House: Nobody is accountable for anything. Arlene [Kirsch] said it tonight, Janice [Loux] said it tonight, who is accountable? Who is going to make changes and help us, as citizens, feel better about everything?"
 
The "policies and consultants" in question were laid out in a presentation by Hugh Daley and Anne O'Connor, who are taking point on the Select Board's effort to ensure that the Police Department's policies are in line with state and federal law and the community's needs.
 
To that end, the town is looking to hire two consultants: one to review the current policies for legal compliance and a second to facilitate a community dialogue about what changes residents would like to see.
 
One goal, Daley said, is to gain accreditation through the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission, a status to date attained by just one Berkshire County agency, the Great Barrington Police Department.
 
"There's this standards piece, which involves police professionals and getting us up to date with current practices," O'Connor said. "But I'm really interested in the community dialogue piece as well. We're looking for professionals to help us with that. The people who provide this kind of service are in high demand right now, which is why it's taking time to even make appointments with the consultants who do this work.
 
"We're hopeful there will be a lot of ways the community can engage. It won't be just a one-off Zoom session. Dialogue means dialogue, and sometimes that means in very small groups. It's where sometimes sensitive feelings and information can be shared and heard. I'm hopeful it can even bring some healing.
 
"People need to know what's going on at the police department and that they can trust them. Just being told, 'No, no, you can trust them,' is not enough."
 
A months-long process to review and refine police policies laid out by the board drew criticism from residents demanding swift action in the wake of August's release of a federal lawsuit against the town, the police chief and the town manager.
 
One called on the board to commit to hiring a consultant certified by the American Civil Liberties Union. Another demanded that the "police professional" hired to review the policies, whom the resident characterized as an "advocate for law enforcement" be balanced by a paid advocate with experience in "community engagement." A third said citizens are less concerned with policies than practices.
 
"Our everyday lives are affected more by the practices than the policies," Huff Templeton said. "I'm hoping you're pursuing a second path here, which is to take inventory of practices and correct the practices that may be inconsistent with the current thinking."
 
Janice Loux told the board that accreditation from the state commission is "the lowest bar you can possibly choose" and the equivalent of "putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop."
 
"To take a history of fraternal organizations that are sexist, that are racist, that have accepted these kinds of policies over the years and say, 'We have the answer'? You don't. You don't," Loux said. "Jane [Patton], you need to do something. It's avoidance."
 
O'Connor and Daley said the board sees the facilitator it wants to bring on board as a counterweight to the strictly technical review of policies needed to earn accreditation.
 
"I liked Hugh's metaphor of the building inspector," O'Connor said, likening accreditation to code compliance in construction. "The other piece is the architect, working with the client [in this case, residents] to figure out what they want the building to look like."
 
This was the first Select Board meeting since the Berkshire District attorney released its so-called Brady List, named for the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Brady vs. Maryland, which identifies police officers about whom information needs to be disclosed to defendants in criminal cases.
 
A member of the Williamstown Police, Craig Eichhammer, is one of eight Berkshire County law enforcement officers on that list, and several residents told the board his presence there is unacceptable.
 
Numerous participants also chided the Select Board for not addressing the Brady List issue until after it was raised by a resident during the meeting's public comment period.
 
Select Board members and Town Manager Jason Hoch said the town still was trying to assess the impact of the Brady List designation before responding to it publicly. Hoch said the list was released to the public before it was shared with the municipalities involved, and the news was still "too new" to have a full response.
 
"I wish we had a better answer at this point," Hoch said. "The intent is not to ignore it, but we don't know enough yet about what the larger-scale ramifications are. Sadly, what we know is there's a list and people justifiably look at that and are concerned and uncomfortable. We're still trying to figure out: What can I tell you about that in fairness to the person and in fairness to the rest of the legal structure.
 
"We're not ignoring it. We're just not quite there yet."
 
It was a familiar scene in Williamstown this summer and fall: town officials trying navigate highly publicized and emotionally charged issues while abiding by the legal frameworks that constrain municipal government.
 
"I get that this may be a big ask for some, but the intent here is to do exactly what I just said: find the things we're doing right, find the things we'd like to do differently and find the things we'd like to change and reform," Patton said, referencing the policy review process. "I know it's taken us a while to get here, but it's the first leg of the journey."
 
This much is certain: Many of their constituents want their elected officials to step on the gas.
 
"Some of us in town, myself included, still feel terror because of who's working in the police department," Arlene Kirsch said. "That needs to change.
 
"You need to do something for the people in this town who feel terror, so that we can move forward. Never mind talking about trust. How about some safety? How about lowering the level of terror that we feel? That would be nice.
 
"I understand you're trying, and I give you all the credit in the world for that, but the things that are terrorizing us are still in place, and you know that. You need to do something about it."

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