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Williamstowners Express Fear, Frustration Over Police Scandals At Select Board Listening Sessions

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

At two listening sessions Wednesday, the Williamstown, Massachusetts select board heard from community members and answered questions about the most recent scandal to rock the town’s police department.

Community outcry after last week’s revelation first reported by WAMC that town police illegally searched the personal records of critics in the community dominated the emotional meetings. Arlene Kirsch was one of the many Williamstownersto call for reforms after a 2020 lawsuit from Sergeant Scott McGowan alleged racism, sexual harassment and anti-Semitism in the town’s police department – like a portrait of Hitler hanging in one officer’s locker. Kirsch, who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, learned she had been the subject of an illegal records search.

“The idea that I could be searched for speaking up about a Hitler photo, given what happened to my family, it has just put me almost over the edge, I have to say," she told the select board. "I feel like I'm living in Weimar Germany.”

Kathleen Igoe said she was shocked to find out that her parents had also been illegally searched by the WPD.

“They have been in town for over 50 years," she said. "Neither has spoken publicly about the police department. They're huge supporters of the town and every part of it. And it's been reported that 20 people were searched, and everyone else I’d heard of had been people who had spoken out. And I was outraged that they had been illegally searched. But learning that my parents had been searched, just makes me wonder, really, how many people, how many more than 20 people had been searched and why is this happening?”

While Acting Chief Mike Ziemba said in a statement earlier that new security protocols were established for use of the Criminal Justice Information Services or CJIS database and that some disciplinary actions had been taken, residents pushed town leaders for more information on the town’s response.

“We're committed to getting as much information out there as we can. The disciplinary plan is not completed yet. So I think that there's going to we need to not pre announced anything because we don't, we're not done with it," said select board member Hugh Daley. “We have to submit our plan to the database people, the CJIS people, and say, hey, did we do enough? And the truth is, is that we're trying to be on the very hard side of enough, you know, if that makes sense, we want to be more aggressive. And this is just unacceptable. So I think we need to wait for the chief to complete his process.”

“The lack of safety that people are telling you about right now are what Black residents have been telling you since long before Sergeant McGowan's complaint," said resident Twink Williams Burns. “In fact, I shared personally that fear with the select board last June. Black residents reiterated the fear again in August after Sergeant McGowan's complaint on the department admitted that an employee used the N word to a college student, and that a picture of Hitler watched over the office for years. There was no independent investigation, no disciplinary action. We shared this fear again in October after the police union’s letter to DIRE, where they attempted to defame the town's first ever majority Black committee, and highlighted the power that the police union feels it should have in our town.”

The DIRE – or Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity – Committee was formed in summer 2020 to create a space for Williamstown to explore its systemic racism. It has become a driver of community conversation around police reform and accountability, especially in the wake of the McGowan lawsuit. The union that represents the town’s police officers accused the committee of creating a hostile environment for law enforcement in an October 2020 letter.

“I want to point out, because it has been so heavy on my heart, that it wasn't until our white accomplices who spoke out were targeted that something substantive happened," continued Williams Burns. "Black pain was not enough for the town to take action. It took white pain for the town to take action. And as a Black community member, that is devastating.”

The ongoing scandals emerging from the Williamstown Police Department has already led to the resignation of former police chief Kyle Johnson and that of town manager Jason Hoch.

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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