The national reckoning with racial justice and police brutality has led to a conversation about the role of law enforcement in New England communities.
The May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody sparked protests across the nation, including in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where residents worked to bring that conversation home.
Residents formed the Racial Justice Police Reform Group in July. They also pushed the town to establish the Advisory Committee for Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity, or DIRE, that same month to lead discussion in the town of 7,500.
One of their first tasks was to cut the police budget, a move that then-police chief Kyle Johnson resisted.
“I don't agree with any of the demands put forth," he said. "It's a national narrative that’s trying to be applied to Williamstown, and it – it doesn't fit.”
When Sergeant Scott McGowan filed a lawsuit in August against the police department, Johnson, Town Manager Jason Hoch and Williamstown, calls to reform the police department and assess current policies redoubled.
“We're kind of on red alert right now," said DIRE Committee chair Mohammed Memfis. "This is a problem, and people are gonna want answers.”
The allegations in the lawsuit were far-ranging, claiming that officers had committed acts of anti-Semitism, racism, sexual harassment and sexual assault. The chief himself allegedly sexually harassed the plaintiff. The town admitted to some of the allegations, including that a police department employee had hung up a picture of Hitler in their locker room between 2018 and 2019. In 2014, a dispatcher shouted a racial epithet in the station when a Black Williams College student was touring it.
After Johnson resigned in December, McGowan withdrew the lawsuit. Some residents continue to call for Hoch to step down for not informing town leadership of a similar discrimination complaint McGowan made in 2019.
Now, a search for a new interim chief is underway, and the town has hired an investigator to look into the lawsuit’s allegations. Williamstown is also undergoing a social work research project to better understand community needs.
The lawsuit has transformed the debate over police reform in Williamstown, broadening the conversation to what public safety can mean in a small community. But since 2020, this conversation has been happening all across New England, in communities like Brattleboro and Burlington, Vermont.
Also in summer 2020, Brattleboro residents were calling for police reform, too.
In August, the Select Board accepted calls for a research project to assess community perceptions of the police department and conduct a policy review. Emily Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger, two residents, worked with local leaders to speak with over 200 community members.
“What people are asking for is support more money and investment in community sorts of supports that are totally decoupled from policing," said Witzberger. "In Brattleboro, there are many different groups of people who are working on non-coercive mental health supports, and working on building up Black-led and BIPOC-led spaces that help people feel safe building up mutual aid networks and building up mutual support networks. Those are happening; they just are very under-supported compared to the amount that we’re investing in policing.”
Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, or BIPOC, residents and those of other marginalized identities spoke of concerns regarding the over-policing of Black residents in Brattleboro. Megas-Russell said Brattleboro has one of the highest rates of racial disparity in traffic stops that turn into arrests or searches in the state.
“Once stopped, the arrest rate that originate from a traffic stop of Black drivers was 4.8 times higher than white drivers," she said. "And the search rate for Black drivers is nine times higher than that of white drivers. But the hit rate is lower. And the hit rate means that when a driver is searched, it's presumably because there's information present that signifies to the officer that there's likely to be contraband.”
For Megas-Russell, the anger felt by some in Brattleboro – a town of roughly 11,000 – is familiar.
“I think this speaks to a sort of national cognitive dissonance that we're dealing with, which has a lot to do with the legacy of policing where it comes from which we can't divorce the current moment, and the current tensions across the country that we're facing from the legacy of policing – which has a lot, everything to do with it is quite grounded in, in sort of slavery, slave catching, and also, you know, being called by land owners to protect the rights of land owners and their property,” Megas-Russell said.
A core tenet of their recommendations is to reframe the conversation around policing by uplifting community efforts to address issues of poverty, the sense of belonging, and mental health in Brattleboro.
“We recognized that the police is just one idea for a safety system," said Megas-Russell. "And it's just one of the current institutions in our town and in communities around the country that address community safety. And I’m really glad that we had that wisdom at the beginning to really bring the community safety lens and focus on people's experiences of safety, danger and harm, and not just on the police.”
The debate over police accountability has been heated in Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, where city leaders have battled over the department’s budget and how many officers should be on the force.
Kyle Dodson, the city’s director of police transformation, said that even using the word “transformation” in his title gets at the crux of a divide that has deepened there.
“Depending on who you talk to, there are probably some people who think there needs to be a police revolution. The word ‘reform’ is there. But I think that what ‘transformation’ does is – I don't think there are many people who see a transformational process as negative or painful. It seems to suggest something that is consensual, you agree to be transformed, and you participate in transforming," he told WAMC. "It has not necessarily gone like that. Police have behaved in ways that have, I think, undermined trust. And I think communities behaved in ways that undermine trust.”
Home to about 43,000 people, the city couldn’t come to an agreement over the terms for a community oversight board that would monitor training policies and complaints leveled at the police department in collaboration with the police chief. The recent vote to increase the number of personnel has further stoked tensions.
Dodson says residents need to fairly assess the police’s work.
“When we see the corrupt chiefs acting poorly, we say that's true of every agency," he said. "And all of them, all cops are all corrupt. They're all bad eggs. That's facile, in my opinion. That's simplistic thinking. It's unfair… And therefore, it really implicates and complicates our ability to have good conversation, because the people doing the good work, are really pissed off, that you won't acknowledge and honor what is happening that’s good, while the bad happens.”
Though he will be leaving the six-month position in April, Dodson says he’s optimistic about the community safety services that Burlington is exploring. Like Brattleboro, it has considered what a community safety hotline response system that acts independently from the police department could look like. It’s similar to one in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS.
“So CAHOOTS is like the gold standard," he said. "And I think that's where Burlington is right now. Part of this transformational moment is to understand how Burlington could create something like that. And I think there also needs to be respect that, you know, when you look at CAHOOTS, CAHOOTS is 30 years in the making.”
Back in Williamstown, Acting Chief Mike Ziemba acknowledges that the lawsuit has eroded trust between the community and town leadership. Still, he wants residents to give the department another chance.
ZIEMBA: Obviously, when this first came out, it was incredibly shocking, embarrassing. The whole range of emotions. And we went through all that. We hear the community, we understand that we need to change, we understand that we need to do better. … I think if given the opportunity, we can prove that we can attain any goals set forth by the community members.”
WAMC: Why do you think that Hitler photo was, you know, in the locker station for that long?
ZIEMBA: I think people get complacent, I think years ago, there was behaviors that were accepted. And I'm talking not one or two years, I'm talking 20, 30, 40 years ago, and some of that stuff has been around or in the station or in someone's locker behind their coats and people don't think, ‘Oh, that's not a big deal. You know, it's been there forever. It's not, it's not mine. It's not this one. It's not that one.’ And you just you, you almost learn to just block that stuff out. If you even knew it was there. But that's not OK. That's not, and times change. That type of locker room behavior stuff is not, that doesn't fly. This is 2021. This isn't, you know, that stuff's not acceptable. Not that it ever was. But you can't judge the entire department based on that.
When asked about ways to build trust in town, Ziemba says he hopes that the town will better incorporate human resource practices into town government work.
“I think the town’s realized, we’re a little bit behind the times with HR," he said. "We need to have a point person, or a couple point people that are responsible for maintaining records, maintaining interdepartmental complaints, or issues and tracking that stuff, and making sure that we're getting the necessary training and oversight that we should be having.”
He also says that the town can invest more in mental health work.
“Looking back 20, 21 years ago, we didn’t deal with as many mental health-related issues as we do now," said Ziemba. "We could easily justify having multiple clinicians and having a satellite office here or North Adams where it’s more centrally located for the three northern towns.”
Ziemba says he’s open to the independent investigation and whatever findings come from the social work project.
Kerri Nicoll, a member of the DIRE Committee who teaches social work at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in neighboring North Adams, assisted social workers with implementing the research initiative. Two social workers are now gathering community input on broader issues of wellbeing as it relates to safety.
“The idea of this research is really for the community to be heard, for someone to really do an in-depth look at what is happening in the police department? What is their job? What do they do day-to-day, and which parts of that might be better handled by somebody who's not a police officer?” she explained.
Nicoll says that while the research project has been accepted with open arms by the Williamstown Select Board and Town Manager, she’s still concerned about the pace of change.
“There are times when it feels really frustrating that we aren't doing the depth of work that I think needs to be done, because I'm not sure that the current leadership knows how to do it,” said Nicoll.
For Mohammed Memfis, it’s critical that the leadership regains trust.
“The good thing, which I think is the most important, is that I think a lot of people are willing to put themselves out there and take a leap of faith and say, ‘We're gonna trust leadership and decisions over the next few months and year or two years, that those decisions are going to be made thinking about what happened over the last couple of months,’” he said.
But the February 8th Select Board meeting showed that the process might take longer than some hope. The town selected lawyer Judy Levenson to lead an internal investigation of the police department, a step overshadowed by a heated discussion as residents criticized the lack of transparency from Hoch and the Select Board regarding the search for an interim chief.
Town leadership admitted that they gave Hoch the go-ahead to move forward in the search without a community advisory committee as initially promised, citing a lack of interest from community members in participating.
Select Board member Anne O’Connor defended the decision.
“The town process was offered, but nobody stepped forward for at least 10 days," she claimed. "We have to move on. We have a job to do.”
But the town had never said there was a 10-day deadline. And further confusion arose as O’Connor and fellow Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas suggested that it was never even the plan to have an interim chief search committee.
“I had never conceived that this advisory committee was going to advise Jason [Hoch] on the interim," he said. "My assumption was that that would go quickly, and that, as Town Manager, it's Jason's job to ensure that we're appropriately staffed in the WPD.”
Select Board Chair Jane Patton also defended the town’s steps.
“We are still, oh, my gosh, very much in the early, early, early, early, early stages of all of this," she said. "Just because Jason had a conversation with someone, because we're trying to move apace, does not mean there's a reason to, to cry foul.”
Several residents who called into the meeting expressed frustration.
“Trust has been deteriorated in this town," said Bilal Ansari. "That is a fact.”
Another resident, Arlene Kirsch, stressed the importance of an unbiased search for an interim chief.
“We also need to absolutely make sure that an unbiased search takes place," she said. "I mean, look at all the problems we've had in this town with, around policing. And so we need to make sure that whoever is brought in here is the right person.”
Another local, Erin Kaiser-Clark, expressed concern over the lack of transparency.
“Why did you change the process?" she asked. "What's happening? I don't, I feel like you're not understanding the level of fear and the level of concern. And your priority is about shaming and blaming people who were speaking. And I wish that wasn't the case. I'm asking you to change that. I'm asking you to own your part in this, and to say, ‘Gee, maybe people wouldn't speak with such concern if they were kept informed and included in the process.’”
Since that meeting, at least 20 people signed up to join the search committee, and Hoch, O’Connor and Patton will select six to form the official group. It comes as Hoch announced February 19th that he would step down within the next 60 days, as WAMC first reported. He told WAMC he is resigning in order to allow for necessary change within the town.
"As the board and I considered where the community was in conversations and sort of where expectations of government were, not just a Williamstown challenge, I think it was kind of this realization that for some my continued presence was a distraction to actually moving a constructive conversation forward," he said. "And the inability to kind of move past that it was, it was taking a toll on all of us. Certainly taking a toll on my staff as well. And it's just not a healthy place to be."
In addition to replacing Hoch, Williamstown is now searching for a new permanent police chief and interim police chief. Thomas will not seek reelection in the town elections in May, and O'Connor's term will end this year.