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Williamstown Police Department Admits To Illegally Searching Critics’ Records

A brick building with white columns sits under a blue sky
Josh Landes
The municipal offices of Williamstown, Massachusetts.

WAMC has learned that the Williamstown, Massachusetts police department illegally used the Criminal Justice Information Services database to search the names and motor vehicle records of its critics in the community.

The revelation is the latest chapter in a scandal involving allegations of racism and sexual harassment in the department that broke last summer. A federal lawsuit from Officer Scott McGowan led to the resignation of first former police Chief Kyle Johnson and then town manager Jason Hoch. Interim Williamstown Chief of Police Mike Ziemba confirmed to WAMC Friday that officers within the department had used the Criminal Justice Information Services or CJIS database to search the names and records of community members who voiced criticism of the department.

“We immediately began an investigation in the unauthorized searches which is continuing," said Ziemba. "Some disciplinary actions have already been taken, and all authors have been required to complete and have completed retraining and the requirements for access to the CJIS system. In addition, security and login controls to the CJIS system have been tightened, and logs of all searches are being regularly reviewed by myself.”

Ziemba said his statement was limited because the investigation is ongoing.

“No improper access of Criminal Offender Record Information or CORI or any secondary dissemination of information has been discovered," he said. "When the investigation is complete, I will be notifying by letter all persons whose information was accessed. Completion of this investigation and notification to the public is a top priority and is proceeding as quickly as possible. For the past week, I've been in regular and direct contact with approximately half of the individuals who are improperly searched. I understand and share their frustrations and I have welcomed the opportunity to hear their fears and concerns. I thank them for speaking with me directly. I reiterate my commitment to transparency and sharing with the public what details can be shared while the investigation remains ongoing. And I also reiterate the commitment of the entire department to the safety and wellbeing of all people in Williamstown.”

WAMC spoke with some of the people who were informed that they had been improperly searched by the WPD.

“It started out as a rumor, and from there, I don’t know the significance of that rumor, and it wasn’t until talking with Acting Chief Ziemba that it became certain," said Wade Hasty, a student who served three years in Iraq over 11 years in the army. He says he openly shared his criticisms of the police department after the scandal broke.

“It feels like they shattered my oath," Hasty told WAMC. "I took an oath to defend the Constitution, and I take the First Amendment very seriously – and to know that speaking out against our government would have some sort of backlash. I served, like I said, for three years in combat, and to know that I’d come back and see that they could be building intel packets on the citizenry is just… it’s so bizarre and absurd to me and egregiously disgusting, I don’t know how to navigate it.”

Hasty says the town hasn’t offered any guarantees about how it will rectify the situation other than an official recognition that it happened.

“From what I’m told from everybody else, we’re supposed to be prepared to be underwhelmed – and that’s unfortunate to hear,” he said.

“It’s very troubling, it’s very upsetting and it’s very violating," said Peggy Kern, who says she spoke out in favor of police reform at public meetings in the wake of the scandal. She says she was also told her information was accessed improperly by the WPD.

“It is not right for the law enforcement officers to be using the tools of law enforcement to run checks on individuals because they don’t like their points of view, or for any reason," Kern told WAMC. "But I find it especially troubling when, as it seems to be, it is targeting people who you disagree with or politically or from an ideological perspective. This sort of activity is what frightens people away from speaking up.”

Ziemba did not give a full number of illegally searched people, but confirmed that it was more than half a dozen.

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.