The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is seeking an independent investigation into the latest Williamstown, Massachusetts police department scandal.
The group called for an independent investigation following last week’s revelation that the Williamstown Police Department illegally used the Criminal Justice Information Services or CJIS database.
“It appears that what has happened is that police officers conducted surveillance, that is, they conducted searches on individuals who are calling for transparency and accountability of the police department," said Bill Newman. "I mean, the irony is palpable.”
Newman is the director of the Western Massachusetts law office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“Police misconduct, including and specifically including the misuse or abuse of police tools – and that includes, for example, police surveillance tools, and places and databases that allow the citizenry to be surveilled by the police – when those tools are utilized, and when they are misused, or put to a purpose for which they should not be put, that's a matter of the utmost seriousness, and there has to be accountability. And there has to be transparency,” he told WAMC.
Peggy Kern is a community member who found out her records had been the subject of an unauthorized search in violation of Massachusetts state law. She was among many in Williamstown who spoke out for reforms after a lawsuit last summer laid out allegations of racism, sexual harassment and more in 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 politically or from an ideological perspective. This sort of activity is what frightens people away from speaking up.”
“The use of law enforcement and the misuse of law enforcement to try to silence critics of government has a long and memorable and really unfortunate and dangerous history in the United States," he said. "So I think that when you look back over the decades in which that law enforcement has been used and misused for those that specific political purpose, I think that we all have to be very, very concerned, when we find that this is happening in our own local communities.”
While the police department and town say that an internal investigation is underway and that some disciplinary measures have already been taken, Newman says only an independent inquest will answer key questions.
“What were the police trying to find out?" he asked. "And why were they trying to find out that information? The who, what, where, when, and why is here really matter. But should this be of concern to all of us that the police seem to have targeted for investigation people who are critical of the police? They're being targeted for investigation, simply because of their political views? Which are pretty mainstream political views, we should point out, not that that would matter, but they were, they are. So should we be concerned, really concerned about this? Absolutely.”