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What we’ve learned from an independent investigation about racism within the Williamstown Police Department

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Williamstown Police Department
/
Town of Williamstown

An independent investigation into the Williamstown, Massachusetts police department details a long-standing culture of racial harassment and hostility.

After an explosive lawsuit filed by former Williamstown Sergeant Scott McGowan in August 2020 brought allegations of misconduct within the department to light, municipal leaders commissioned two independent investigations into the situation. One was led by attorney Judy Levenson, who submitted her report to the town in August 2021. Since obtaining it in January, WAMC has continued to dig into the findings.

While both investigations detail widespread misconduct, including sexual harassment and grievous management issues within the department, they also catalogue claims of racism and racial hostility within the WPD.

In McGowan’s initial suit – since dropped – he claimed that “for well over a decade, the Williamstown Police Department has maintained an atmosphere in which racial harassment and hostility to persons of color are tolerated and perpetrated at the highest level.” He specifically identified “the demeaning behavior of Chief Kyle Johnson,” who resigned from the department in December 2020.

Levenson’s report ultimately found that both McGowan and Johnson had “initiated, participated in, and tolerated racially charged and offensive comments and conduct within the department.”

One of the most stunning revelations of McGowan’s suit was that WPD Officer Craig Eichhammer had displayed a photo of Hitler in his locker for almost 20 years. While Levenson’s investigation was inconclusive about Johnson’s awareness of the photo, she says that given the small size of the department and how long it was up, “it seems improbable that Johnson would not have heard about it and if he did hear about it, he failed to investigate or act otherwise.”

Johnson, who first joined the WPD in 1993 before becoming interim and later permanent chief in 2004, claimed to not have known about the portrait until 2019.

The report describes Johnson pretending to be unable to distinguish the identities of persons of color, rubbing his eyes and looking back and forth between a Black member of the WPD and persons of color either entering the station or appearing on television. He would then ask if the other person of color was the officer. While Levenson was inconclusive about the claim that Johnson would circle newspaper photos of persons of color, write a Black officer’s initials on the photos, and leave them in their mailbox, “the detailed nature of McGowan’s account and Johnson’s failure to deny or affirm the incident lend credence to these allegations.”

In both incidents, Johnson said he had no memory of the events in question.

Levenson says that claims that the officer in question – who did not testify in the investigation – requested a transfer to a different department due to the racially hostile environment are credible given her investigation’s findings.

Levenson confirms that a part-time dispatcher shouted the N-word in the department in 2012, which was overheard by both a Black officer and Black Williams College student touring the station. While Johnson removed them from assignment for two weeks after the officer reported the incident, the report notes that no written record of it was produced and no follow-up training or education of the dispatcher appeared to occur.

For McGowan’s part, Levenson notes that despite his claim that he was offended by the image of Hitler, he did nothing to remove it despite being a supervising officer over the years, opting instead to photograph it for use in his lawsuit.

The former sergeant was heard to use the N-word when referring to his Black roommate – a fellow WPD officer – between 2002 and 2005. Levenson says that McGowan frequently commented that another WPD officer of Puerto Rican descent “Came Over on a Rubber Tube, Saw the Statue of Liberty and said, ‘I Made it to America.’” The officer in question was born in New York City, and that despite knowing that, McGowan continued the remarks, sometimes swapping in Mexico for Puerto Rico. McGowan denied making the remarks to Levenson.

In a statement to WAMC about the investigations, Interim WPD Chief Michael Ziemba said that he immediately took action to address the concerns they raised upon receiving them, and that “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.”

McGowan, who declined an on-air interview with WAMC, has provided his own statement about the investigations, saying that they are neither fair nor impartial. He maintains that he has been targeted for character assassination as a result of what he describes as whistleblowing activity.

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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