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Williamstown Officials: Halloween 'Treat' Not Intended to Send Message
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
07:48PM / Sunday, November 01, 2020
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Top left, the 'subdued gray' flag patches used on some service uniforms. Below left, the 'subdued blue' patches the WPD received in error and included in some Halloween bags. Right, a 'Blue Lives Matter' flag.

An image shared Sunday morning on Facebook of a patch included in a bag of Halloween candy.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A Halloween treat distributed Saturday by members of the Williamstown Police Department that prompted a lengthy exchange on social media was the result of an errant run by the vendor selling the department uniform patches.

But the town manager acknowledged Sunday that the patches in question could be "easily confused" with the "Blue Lives Matter" symbolism that has been employed nationwide and in town to counter the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Sunday morning, an image started circulating on Facebook of a baggie distributed by local police officers to trick-or-treaters the evening before. Included in the baggie was various candy, a pencil and what appears to be a patch with a blue and black rendering of the American flag.

Town Manager Jason Hoch on Sunday afternoon confirmed that the police did distribute bags of candy that included "surplus patches that are not in current use by the department."

Some children received patches with a discontinued version of the WPD's shield. Some received excess K-9 patches. And some got what Hoch characterized as, "error run flag patches that were unusable by the department that the vendor did not want returned."

"The utility uniforms used by some police officers call for a subdued grey flag patch," Hoch wrote in reply to a request for comment. "The first run received [from the vendor] was in subdued blue.

"While the appearance of these blue error patches is not identical to the blue lives matter type flags, it is apparent that the differences are not significant and they can be easily confused."

Hoch said it is typical for police agencies to give away surplus items, like patches, as handouts

The candy was purchased by the department from a fund it maintains for community outreach, and the officers who distributed the goodie bags were in uniform and on duty as part of a response to concerns raised last year about trick-or-treat safety following an accident on Cole Avenue.

"The [blue and black] patches of concern were free, as they were a production error," Hoch said. "All other items were stock that had been purchased in the past but no longer needed for current use."

On Sunday afternoon, reached out to some community members who have been highly critical of the WPD in the wake of a federal lawsuit that came to light in August as well as all five members of the Select Board for comment.

Select Board member Andrew Hogeland said he understands that the goodie bags were intended to be a goodwill gesture from the WPD, but he also understands why some images can be offensive.

Select Board Chair Jane Patton echoed those sentiments, characterizing the goodie bags as an idea founded in good intentions that "missed the mark."

"It is unfortunate no one caught how it could be construed," Patton said. "I don't believe anybody looked at that and thought the message they were sending was 'Blue Lives Matter.' I think they had a bunch of stuff in a drawer, they were going to have a more significant presence for Halloween … and it missed. There's nothing else to say about it except that it missed.

"I feel badly for everybody. I feel badly for the folks who see that and feel as though there's that 'Blue Lives Matter' message. And I feel badly for the folks who were putting together a goodie bag they thought would make kids feel better on Halloween and did not stop and think that would be construed."

Bilal Ansari, who serves with Patton on the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, said that, in general, he is against altering the flag in any way other than its original red, white and blue.

Residents' reactions to the patches is indicative of a larger issue in the town, he said.

"Unfortunately, if WPD handed out black licorice and blue M&Ms they would have received similar skepticism," Ansari said. "Williamstown, as a community, is in a crisis of trust. As a leader I understand this moment feels like Warren Buffet describes, 'Trust is like the air we breathe – when it's present, nobody really notices; when it's absent, everybody notices.'

"As a leader, I am looking forward to helping our community breathe again. We all need to be able to sit around the table because we have much more to be thankful for, and it is the only way we can restore trust here in Williamstown."

Hoch said Sunday that he had suggested that the officers on duty during trick-or-treating distribute candy. He said he did not know who at the Police Department decided what went into the treat bags.

Town policy prohibits political speech while a paid employee is representing the town, but Hoch indicated he does not believe the blue and black patches represented political speech.

"The distribution was intended as an act of goodwill and no political statement was intended," Hoch wrote in his email. "I'm sorry that it may have been received that way because that was not the intent.

"As noted, the flags in question were sent to us in error and are not part of the [WPD] uniform. I certainly appreciate how the blue line symbolism has become politically charged and further, symbols similar to that will likely be seen in the same light."

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