The town government in Williamstown, Massachusetts has reiterated its support for an independent investigation of its police department following allegations of racism, sexual assault and the resignation of the police chief.
The Northern Berkshire community of around 7,500 was rocked by an August 2020 lawsuit from Sergeant Scott McGowan alleging that Chief Kyle Johnson had allowed for gratuitous racism and sexism in the department, even accusing Johnson of committing sexual assault himself. While Johnson resigned in December and McGowan has since dropped his suit, community members have continued calls for an investigation into the department. At its Monday night meeting, select board chair Jane Patton underscored the town’s commitment to such an investigation, especially after the chaotic events of January 6th in Washington that saw both on and off duty law enforcement officers participate in the violent attack on the Capitol by right-wing extremists.
“I have asked and have been told that no Williamstown Police Department personnel attended the event in DC that day. I am confident in that response,” said Patton.
McGowan had filed a separate complaint about the department to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in addition to the federal lawsuit.
“I think somehow it’s not been made perfectly clear that this board is unequivocally committed to conducting a thorough, fully independent investigation into the events as outlined in the MCAD filing as well as an assessment of the atmosphere, tone and tenor of the department today,” said Patton.
Along with community groups and members of the public, Williams College President Maud Mandel wrote a letter to the select board calling for an investigation days after McGowan’s lawsuit was filed. The college, whose campus dominates the center of town, donated $400,000 to the construction of a new, multi-million dollar police station, which opened in 2019. One incident from the lawsuit that has been confirmed by Williamstown involved a dispatcher using the N-word while a Black Williams student was touring the station.
“We have begun the search for an investigator, and will move on that as quickly as possible," said Patton. "This is not something that happens overnight. It is being discussed and researched and worked on every day. I would venture to say seven days a week.”
The town initially chose to stand by Johnson despite public outcry before his resignation, and town leaders have been forced to publicly deny requests for their own resignations from some members of the community. Patton acknowledged how intense local conversation around the issue had become, and said an investigation would begin once the appropriate body to conduct it was identified.
“These people do not grow on trees, and they are not just hanging around waiting for our call," she said. "We are doing everything we can. I recognize that I sound frustrated, which is good, because that absolutely conveys how I feel at this moment. So we hear you. We are heeding the call, and we are doing everything we can to move apace.”
Names of possible candidates to carry out the investigation have been presented to the town.
For one Williamstowner, it wasn’t enough to hear about a future investigation. Janice Loux noted to Town Manager Jason Hoch that one town police officer has been placed on Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington’s Brady List, a document that flags officers for having been engaged in or accused of misconduct that prosecutors would have to disclose to the defense in the event of their involvement in a trial.
“I would like your commitment to terminate Craig Eichammer for being on the Brady List," said Loux. "Are you willing to make that commitment to us tonight?”
“No,” responded Hoch.
“Why not?” asked Loux.
“I can’t," said the town manager. "Right now, we’ve actually explored with counsel that what the prevailing legal landscape is as to whether termination for simply being on the Brady List has been an acceptable option – it has not been so far. That’s a risk that I can’t take right now.”
Hoch said he would never commit to terminating a town employee in a public meeting.
WAMC News intern Jeongyoon Han contributed to this story.