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Independent investigations of Williamstown Police Department detail systemic failures at “at many levels,” confirm sexual misconduct, racism claims

A bald white man dressed in a police uniform and a white haired man in a dress shirt and khakis stand outside of a blue building with white detailing.
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Former Williamstown Police Department Chief Kyle Johnson and Former Town Manager Jason Hoch outside the new police station in 2019.

Triggered by allegations of misconduct that shook the Williamstown, Massachusetts community, two independent investigations paint a damning portrait of the town’s police department.

Former WPD Sergeant Scott McGowan’s August 2020 lawsuit against Williamstown set off months of controversy, protest, resignations, and reflection in the idyllic Northern Berkshire college town.

McGowan alleged that the department’s issues started at the top, with Police Chief Kyle Johnson participating in sexual harassment and racist behavior. The suit prompted shock and condemnation from the Williamstown community, and reshaped the subsequent race for select board in response to calls for reform. A fellow officer displaying a picture of Hitler in his locker for years was among the revelations of the suit. When the dust settled, McGowan had withdrawn his suit and left the department, while Town Manager Jason Hoch and Johnson had both resigned.

One of the reactions to the suit was a March 1st, 2021 letter from the full-time officers of the WPD with its own raft of allegations against McGowan, as well as a unanimous vote of no confidence in him.

Days later, WAMC broke the news that members of the WPD had illegally used the Criminal Justice Information Services database to search the names and motor vehicle records of its critics in the community.

The town’s select board quickly hired two independent investigators to assess the situation: Boston-based attorney Judy Levenson and licensed private investigator Paul J. L’Italien of Pembroke.

In August 2021, both issued reports on the department to the town. WAMC obtained them this month.

Levenson’s findings fault McGowan and Johnson — but mostly the department itself. The two were found to have “initiated, participated in, and tolerated” both racist behavior and sexual misconduct inside the WPD for years.

Specifically, Levenson says Johnson and McGowan both rubbed their clothed genitals on members of the department, though she found claims that the latter simulated sex with a police dog to be inconclusive. The former chief’s tenure was defined by an often inappropriate, unprofessional work culture with clearly formed cliques and growing resentment with Johnson.

The Levenson findings also absolve Hoch and Johnson from McGowan’s charges that he had been retaliated against for “his opposition to unlawful practices based on sexual harassment, racial hostility, and union activity.”

Both reports underscore the bizarre history of McGowan’s employment with the town. The son of the town’s fire chief, he began working in the WPD as a dispatcher around 1994, before being fired in 1997 for “ongoing off-duty antics, driving to endanger, operating under the influence, damaging people’s property and providing alcohol to minors.” That year, McGowan was involved in a Williams College incident described as “driving on lawn in the company of a minor female who possessed alcohol.” Remarkably, he was re-hired in 1998 as a part-time reserve officer.

The same year, his behavior toward his girlfriend at a Williamstown bar prompted a police response and he was also taken into custody at a Patriots game in Foxboro for unspecified behavior.

To quote L’ltalien, “McGowan was released without charges once it was determined he was a police officer.” In 1999, he was arrested for domestic abuse and battery in North Adams, prompting his second firing. Despite that, McGowan found employment in the Adams Police Department while the case was pending, and returned to the Williamstown Police Department as a full-time officer in 2001.

He became a sergeant in 2004.

Johnson appointed McGowan the WPD’s designated investigator – including for sexual assaults – at McGowan’s request around 2007. McGowan was arrested for a DUI in Pownal, Vermont in 2009, but was only issued a single-day suspension from Johnson and remained a full-time officer.

L’ltalien’s report raises the “question of how Scott McGowan was originally hired as a full-time police officer in Williamstown considering his history of misconduct and a serious criminal charge during the 1990’s. The answer to this question is unresolved.” The investigator issued a failure of management finding toward Johnson for his conduct as chief.

McGowan denied any wrongdoing in his interview with L’ltalien, which the investigator found implausible given the volume of evidence and complaints against the former sergeant.

Interim WPD Chief Michael Ziemba offered the following statement to WAMC:

“I did not see the reports until well into my interim role. I had already started or completed some of the recommended actions in the report. There were a couple other actions that I immediately undertook once seeing them. The reports confirmed for me the amount of work that needed to be done to fix the problems at hand. That's what has been happening. The current department today does not in any way operate the way it did during the time period of the events detailed in the reports.”

This story only covers some of the many findings of the Levenson and L’ltalien reports. WAMC will have more on the findings of the two investigations in the days to come.

Interim Town Manager Charles Blanchard declined to comment on the reports in an interview with WAMC.

You can read them for yourself here:

Levenson WPD Report

Levenson Recommendations

L'Italien Executive Summary

L'Italien Recommendations

L'Italien McGowan Report

L'Italien CJIS Investigation Peer Review

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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