|Williamstown Board Talks Reasons For, Against Replacing Police Chief|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
04:01PM / Tuesday, October 27, 2020
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday gave residents a window into one piece of the numerous conversations the body has been having in executive session since mid-August.
During the public comment portion of the twice-monthly public meeting, Janice Loux pressed the five elected officials to explain whether they individually recommended to the town manager that he remove the chief of police in the wake of allegations raised in a federal lawsuit
against the town, town manager and chief.
Loux, one of many community members who have been pushing for the removal of both Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch, was given an opening when Select Board members Jane Patton and Andrew Hogeland indicated in separate remarks that they favored a change of leadership at the Williamstown Police Department.
"A big part of my education has been learning about how different actions affect certain members of the community," Hogeland said. "In the midst of the focus on that and the work that needs to be done and the voices that need to be heard, I did not sufficiently acknowledge that I had heard those voices. I have and I do, and I join in the apologies for that gap.
"Many voices that I've heard believe there should be a change of leadership at the Police Department, that we would be best served as a community and be able to make the necessary changes under a new chief. I hear those voices, and I agree with them."
That moment marked the first time a member of the board publicly expressed that sentiment.
"I have discussed this with Kyle and with the rest of the team here," Hogeland said. "And I have said if Jason's decision is that Kyle should stay, I will try to make that work. But I think we might make more progress with a change of leadership. There are good reasons underlying Jason's decision to move forward with Kyle. My inner guide would have taken a different path."
About seven minutes later and after two other board members spoke, Patton, the chair said, "I echo Andy, in that I was not on the same page."
When Loux's turn to speak from the "the floor" of the virtual meeting came around nearly an hour later, she referred back to Hogeland's remarks.
"I want to thank Andy," Loux said. "I appreciate your transparency about the chief. I'd like to know, Anne [O'Connor], Jeffrey [Thomas], Hugh [Daley], Jane [Patton], what was your position on whether the chief should go or stay, please?"
Patton said she could have been more clear in speaking to the point earlier but reiterated her position.
"I, along with Andy, this whole time, was more in favor of a change in leadership," Patton said. "This is an insanely nuanced situation with many factors to consider, and at the end of the day, this is where the board landed. I also, like Andy, will do everything I can now that this is the decision that Jason has made, to be supportive and learn and, even before we have policies and procedures in place, hold people accountable.
"It's unfortunate that I was not more clear because I was steadfast and resolute."
Town manager is the one position in town government directly under the control of the Select Board. The manager is the hiring authority and supervisor for positions like the police chief, and several members of the board Monday stressed that ultimately the decision on whether Johnson stays or goes was and is Hoch's to make.
It was not immediately clear, despite Patton's comment that "this is where the board landed," whether the five-person body held a formal vote on a recommendation to Hoch in any of its numerous executive sessions. The board had an agenda item for Monday's meeting to approve some executive session minutes for release to the public, but given the late hour of the meeting's conclusion, Patton said she would move that piece of business to a special meeting, hopefully later this week.
Daley told Loux that he supports keeping Johnson in place because he believes the chief can redeem himself, and he emphasized the previously announced town review
of police policies and procedures that will help ensure Williamstown gets the police force it wants and needs.
"I believe in people," Daley said. "I have managed people for a long time. I've been an employer for 20 years. … There are two types of mistakes. There are the mistakes for which a person recognizes it and takes accountability for it and corrects for it and doesn't repeat it. … And then there's the mistake where somebody does not take responsibility, runs, hides and all that other stuff.
"The chief, for me, has met my expectations on pushing forward. I think there's room for him to grow. And I think, within the community, it's good for us to give people the opportunity to grow, learn and improve."
Thomas also drew on experience from his professional experience, noting that he is the executive director of a non-profit and reports to a volunteer board of directors, much like Hoch, who answers to the Select Board. The two sides may not always see eye to eye in those relationships, but sometimes the board needs to accept the judgment of the professional hired to do the job, Thomas indicated.
Thomas said he does have concerns about whether the challenge of rebuilding trust with the community is too big a job for Johnson or anyone who might be in that position, but, at the end of the day, Thomas trusts the administrative team in place.
"I disagree with certain things Kyle has done, and I certainly don't always agree with the town manager," Thomas said. "That's normal. What's important to me is that our town manager and our police chief have said to this board that they believe they can turn this around. They're open to the reviews and the standards and practices, the work Hugh [Daley] and Anne [O'Connor] are leading. They've embraced that.
"I have to be hopeful, and I have to be supportive of our town manager and police chief. … I'll say again, in closing, it is not our decision. It is the town manager's decision, per the town charter. I'm sure you disagree with me, Janice [Loux], and that's fine, with all due respect."
O'Connor said she found it difficult to make a final decision because -- as she does on many issues -- she can appreciate both sides. She also indicated that the town and the board are not at the end of the process.
"I would have gladly seen [Johnson] go willingly," O'Connor said. "It became more complicated when it was a matter of encouraging Jason to fire him.
"A lot of what Hugh [Daley] said are things that resonated for me, as well in terms of where I landed on this. I am, by nature, a very forgiving person. I try to be compassionate, to look past what frustrates me about someone and see the good. I am hopeful Kyle has this potential. It might be difficult for him in his interfacing with the community.
"I'm hopeful that he's already … learned tremendously and not always in the easy way at all. There's the potential for growth. I see that with Jason [Hoch] as well. Things change constantly, including my own decisions. The decisions that have been made are just the beginning. We have to see how things unfold."
Hoch did not directly address the question raised by Loux, which was directed specifically to the board members. But earlier in the meeting, he talked about the steps he has taken since a lawsuit filed by Police Sgt. Scott McGowan became public.
"Over the past several months, Chief Johnson and I have had many challenging conversations about past conduct in the police department," Hoch said. "As allegations were made as well as additional observations were shared with me from others, I reviewed the facts and circumstances many times involving events that happened prior to my arrival.
"Was there terrible and inappropriate behavior in the past? Yes. Has it been acknowledged and regretted? Yes. Is there any indication that the conditions endure at that same level today? No.
"In some cases, discipline was delivered at the time. Do I, sitting here today, agree with the approach taken then? Not always. Nonetheless, I've come to the important decision to retain Chief Johnson as Williamstown's chief of police."
Hoch said there is no indication that there is a "culture of white supremacy, overt racism, or tendency to be a sexual predator." He said sexual harassment, racial discrimination or hostile work environments will not be tolerated in the town, and accusations would be investigated.
"In our conversations, the chief quickly and directly acknowledged and apologized for his own past conduct," Hoch said. "In subsequent conversations with the Select Board, the chief was forthright and genuine, and he recognized and reflected on the comments of community members who feel concern, fear or worse. None of those are taken lightly."
It's likely that few of the residents who called in to the meeting were satisfied that the town is treating those concerns with the appropriate gravity.
"I think that this is the first meeting where you, the Select Board, have started by acknowledging truth instead of saying, 'Trust us,' or, 'We can't talk about it,' or 'Our police department is above average,' " Margot Besnard said. "You acknowledged the truth of some past incidents of police misconduct in Williamstown, including the use of a racial slur, the display of a Hitler photo and past incidents of inappropriate sexual conduct that's been admitted to by the chief. And you acknowledged that an officer and a dispatcher and the chief who engaged in that behavior are all still employed by the town, being paid by our taxpayer dollars.
"And you also acknowledged that learning these facts made some residents who have experienced sexual assault and harassment and some Jewish residents feel unsafe. It's been really hard to move forward as a community without that recognition of the facts, without a recognition of baseline harm."
Besnard said recognition is the first step in reconciliation but expressed doubt that the town is willing to go the rest of the way.
"I'm fearful [Monday's statement by the Select Board] is actually the last step in a process that's been characterized by strategic silence, passing blame and rejecting transparency or accountability," Besnard said. "Because the same men who engaged in misconduct -- the town manager who didn't inform you all about the [Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination] complaint and the police chief, who was the leader during the entire time the other incidents happened -- those men are not qualified to make the decision on whether sexual harm or racism has ended or is still continuing.
"That doesn't add up. It's not restorative. Why not try a new leader? Why not try somebody new?"
In other business on Monday, Patton opened the meeting by condemning an incident of harassment against a member of the community that came to light Friday through an email Williams College President Maud Mandel sent to the college community. Mandel reported that a college employee received an email targeting them based on their race and sexual orientation
"I find this act to be sickening and beyond reprehensible," Patton said. "Make no mistake, the Williamstown Board of Selectmen unequivocally condemns this hateful act. My heart goes out to the person who received this letter. Please know that you are welcomed and valued in our community.
"The Williamstown Police Department and Williams College Campus Safety and Security are working closely together on the investigation."