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Williamstown Police Chief Resigns After Months Of Controversy

A uniformed police officer and a man in a button down shirt and khakis stand outside a blue building with white highlights
Josh Landes
Williamstown Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch stand outside the new police station in 2019.

The Williamstown, Massachusetts police chief has resigned following months of outcry after allegations of racism and sexual misconduct in his department rocked the community this summer.

In August, Sergeant Scott McGowan filed a complaint in U.S. district court against the town accusing Chief Kyle Johnson of overseeing a department where racial discrimination and sexual harassment went on regularly. He specifically accused Johnson of sexually assaulting male and female members of the force, verbally demeaning women and turning a blind eye to incidents like a dispatcher using the N-word while a Black Williams College student was touring the station and an officer hanging a picture of Hitler in his locker for years. McGowan’s lawyer, David A. Russcol, spoke to WAMC then.

“I think Mr. McGowan's claim is kind of unique in many ways," he said. "And so I can say that I haven't handled a case quite like this before.”

The Williams Record reported in late August that the town officially denied some of McGowan’s accusations, but confirmed that some of the claims were true – including the incident with the dispatcher using the racial slur.

Despite community outcry – including a protest march to the new multimillion dollar police station opened in 2019 and condemnation from the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP – town manager Jason Hoch said he would keep Johnson on in late October. The chief apologized the following month.

Concurrent to the scrutiny around Johnson, the Williams Record reported in November that dispatcher Bill Jennings had resigned after posting racist statements on Facebook over the summer.

At Monday night’s select board meeting, it became clear that Johnson was out.

“Earlier this summer, the board and I discussed a Separation Agreement with police Chief Kyle Johnson, and had reviewed that with town council and consideration of the various employment law and contractual obligations associated with an agreement. We all later agreed we would not make a change either voluntary or involuntary at that time, and the chief committed to the work to engage with community and build trust," said Hoch. “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 its police departments.”

Hoch said Johnson – who has served for nearly 23 years – had thought over the situation around Thanksgiving, and within the last week had agreed it was best for the town that he resign. Lieutenant Michael Zimba is now the acting police chief of the Williamstown Police Department.

“Over the past five years, I've appreciated the opportunity to work with him," said Hoch. "I've seen the deep care he has for the community and for the department. I've come to know, I've come to understand that the Kyle I know is not necessarily the man others have had the opportunity to know.”

Some at the meeting like Jessica Dils applauded the move.

“On behalf of the Racial Justice and Police Reform Team, I want to thank the select board for the decision you've made toward positive action in order to begin to repair, restore, and rebuild the trust and the safety within our community,” she said.

Another community member said that town leaders who had stood by Johnson should also resign, though select board members and Hoch disagreed.

Hoch says he hopes to have an interim police chief installed by early 2021 and a plan in place to select a new permanent chief by late January.

iBerkshires.com reports McGowan withdrew his suit against Williamstown as a result of Johnson’s resignation.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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