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Williamstown Residents Reeling From News Of Illegal Police Searches

Buildings, sidewalks and trees lie alongside a road through rolling green hills.
Josh Landes
Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Residents of Williamstown, Massachusetts who criticized the police are reacting to the revelation that the town’s police department responded by illegally accessing their records.

The news first reported by WAMC is the latest shockwave to go through the Northern Berkshire town of around 7,500 after a lawsuit alleging sexism and racism in the department broke last summer. It led to the resignation of former police chief Kyle Johnson and town manager Jason Hoch after outcry from the community. Interim Chief Mike Ziemba confirmed the newest misconduct from the Williamstown PD to WAMC Friday.

“A few officers of the Williamstown Police Department, the WPD, searched names of individuals in Registry of Motor Vehicle records accessed through the Criminal Justice Information System, otherwise known as CJIS, database, without a criminal justice purpose as required by Mass law and Department of Criminal Justice Services regulations,” he said.

The department says it immediately began an investigation into the matter.

Those who were subject to the illegal search are reeling.

“It was absolute stunning. Definitely terrifying, I would say," said Jessica Dils, who works for Williams College part-time and is a member of Greylock Together, a progressive citizens’ group formed in 2016. “I grew up here in Williamstown, and I chose to return here. And when do that as a young family, a growing family, you do that because there’s so much trust built into a hometown. So for me, that was really what was broken in that moment, finding out that my own public safety officers were targeting me.”

Ziemba told WAMC that the number of people targeted by the illegal search was more than half a dozen.

“We were notified by someone who was alarmed having found out that these searches had taken place, and it was clear what we had in common,” Dils told WAMC.

Williamstowners who had spoken out for police reform and criticized town leadership were subject to the unauthorized inquest.

“When I learned about the things that were happening within the police department – for example, there was picture of Hitler hanging up that’s been there for a while – also I think, though different media channels, I’d learned and my family had learned that there were racial slurs being used in the police department. There were, I believe, allegations of sexual harassment," said Josh Fredette. “As somebody who is a citizen in this town, and I take equality very seriously considering that my family is biracial, I take those sorts of matters, especially when it’s happening in any public institution, especially law enforcement, very seriously. So I’ve been very vocal about transparency in our town, about having our town manager and former police chief bring the facts to light and pushing for reform and racial equality in our community.”

He described his reaction to the news as ranging from rage to disgust to fear – feelings intensified by the revelation that his wife Amy, who had not been as vocal as he had about police reform, had also been searched.

“My husband spoke out, but he didn’t threaten anyone in any way," she told WAMC. "He was looking out for myself and our children so we could raise them in a community that was fair. And to find out that my name was kind of dragged into this even though I had chosen to remain out of the public eye was shocking.”

For Fredette and her family, the police force’s troubles and the illegal search revelation hit hard.

“Prior to even finding out that my name had been searched, I had had a conversation with my dad, who is African American and a member of this community," she said. "And I was just asking him his thoughts on this and asking for information on this town and community that I felt like were allies, and the one thing I took away from that conversation was my dad said to me, he said Amy, be careful, and tell Josh to be careful. And I said what does that mean Dad, be careful? And he said, I know you feel like you’re doing something that’s right and it’s justified, but it will come back to bite you in the butt. And not even a week after having that conversation with my father, this came to light. And I thought, my goodness. And I reached out to him again, and he said, my whole life living in this community, you just learn to swallow it. You swallow the racism, you swallow the looks, you walk away from it. And this is what happens when you don’t. So I’ll fight. I’ll fight so I don’t have to swallow it like my dad has had to his entire life in this community.”

The Williamstown PD says it’s taken some disciplinary actions within the department as a result of the illegal database use and tightened its internal security around use of the CJIS system.

So far, no legal action has been taken against the department or town over the searches.

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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