At Monday’s Williamstown, Massachusetts Select Board meeting, the town reported that a complaint leveled at town staffers has led to resignations. The town also detailed further steps it’s taking as it deals with the fallout of a lawsuit alleging sexual assault and racism in its police department.
Early in the meeting, it was announced that two Williamstown employees resigned earlier in the day after the Select Board received a conduct complaint directed at them earlier this month.
Select Board Chair Jane Patton did not identify the department or staff members involved in the complaint.
“We ask that everyone respect the privacy of the individuals involved as it is a challenging time for all,” she said.
Patton said the town is working to address the situation, but little information was available for public consumption.
"We are literally hours into this, the investigation phase," she said. "So I am not ready at this time to identify the department because we are trying to be mindful of everyone involved.”
Patton addressed a January 21st incident at Mount Greylock Regional School in which a racial slur was used in a virtual Zoom classroom by a yet-unidentified participant by re-emphasizing the town’s commitment to a county pledge to combat racism.
“None of my colleagues condone racism in any form," said Patton. "We condemn it. In fact, I'd like to applaud the new superintendent, and all involved for their transparency and speed with which they communicated out to the school community and the town at large.”
Jake McCandless – formerly the superintendent of the Pittsfield public schools – took over the Mount Greylock Regional School District in the fall.
Talk turned to the next steps for hiring a new police chief, as well as conducting an internal investigation of the town’s department and a research project on the community’s relationship to policing. This comes after a federal lawsuit filed by a police sergeant in August 2020 alleged that former Chief Kyle Johnson – who resigned in December – oversaw sexual harassment and racism within the department, with claims that he committed acts of sexual assault himself.
Town Manager Jason Hoch says he hopes to start an advisory committee which would launch the searches for both an interim and then permanent chief.
“I’m inclined to find a way that brings an interim chief onboard sooner rather than later," he said. "I think there's an advantage of having just sort of a fresh set of eyes, as well as another set of hands that can guide us through, you know, assessment of where we are, some incremental change, and be engaged at the front end of some of these conversations.”
Kerri Nicoll, a social worker who is advocating for a community-informed needs assessment for town policing, agrees bringing on an interim chief is the right approach.
“Our community needs time and space to process what has happened here in the past, to understand what's happening right now in our present and to envision our future," she said. "When I say that our community needs that time, I’m including members of our police department in that. Hiring an interim chief will provide that time and space. It will allow the police department to work under leadership of someone who has not been immersed in this department for years.”
She said that new leadership separate from existent inter-departmental relationships would be an important part of the reckoning with the scandal-plagued institution.
“The interim chief can also keep the department working while the town conducts the investigation and while we all prepare to learn from and listen to one another in light of that investigation,” said Nicoll.
Plans are underway to begin a community-need oriented policing study on February 15th with the hiring of a social worker.
The Select Board members also discussed the hiring process for an investigator to probe allegations leveled at the police department through the lawsuit. Four candidates are under consideration to spearhead the investigation.
In the meantime, Acting Chief Michael Ziemba says the department has been adjusting to personnel and policy changes. It has hired a part-time dispatcher, who is starting this week to cover shifts instead of having others work overtime. Ziemba noted that since the start of the pandemic, there have been fewer traffic stops in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We put out a directive last year around this time that, deal with traffic complaints, deal with active complaints, deal with serious complaints – but minor traffic-related issues, the hand-to-hand exchange, window-to-window, wasn't worth the risk," he said. "If it was something that wasn't an immediate threat to public safety, let's just let it sit for now to try to keep us all safe and healthy – not just the operator, but us. We’re a small department. If one or two of us were to contract that, it would cripple us almost immediately.”
Ziemba says the department hasn’t had any cases of COVID-19 to date.
WAMC News Intern Jeongyoon Han contributed to this story.