|Williamstown Police Chief Apologizes, Faces Tough Questions from Residents|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
11:15PM / Monday, November 09, 2020
|Police Chief Kyle Johnson, seen in this file photo, took tough questions from some of his most vocal critics on Monday night and said an officer is being investigated for sharing racist social media posts.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williamstown's police chief Monday apologized for the times when his department has failed to live up to the community's expectations and directly engaged several of the residents who have spent the last three months calling for his removal.
"I've always strived for professionalism of me and the department," Chief Kyle Johnson said at a virtual meeting of the Select Board. "Yet, I have let you down with some poor judgment early in my tenure as chief by tolerating and participating in behaviors that should never have occurred in the workplace.
"For this, I am truly sorry. And I apologize to the community, to you the Select Board, to my colleagues in the police department and to all town employees. As I've reflected on past conduct within the station, I'm disappointed there were times this conduct did not meet the expectations of the community and that I did not always respond as strongly as now realize I should have to meet those expectations.
"Please know, I've learned from this, and I continue to learn each and every day."
Johnson's first public statements in a public forum since the August release of a federal lawsuit against him, the town manager and the town coincided with more allegations against a department employee over the weekend.
On Saturday, Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch were informed that a member of the Police Department shared racist posts on Facebook.
Johnson and Hoch said they looped in the chair and vice chair of the Select Board over the weekend as an investigation was launched into the social media posts. And Johnson told the full board on Monday that he expected to have a recommendation for Hoch on Tuesday about the future of the employee, who has been placed on administrative leave since the posts came to light.
Hoch and members of the board said the town's response to the recent allegations stands in contrast to the incidents alleged in a Sgt. Scott McGowan's lawsuit against the town.
"Jane [Patton] and I have been involved in the Facebook incident since it started," Select Board Vice Chair Andrew Hogeland said. "For what it's worth, I'd say the response has been quick, professional and competent.
"I trust this process. I completely get that you might not trust older processes."
Hogeland's comment was in reaction to questions raised by Erin Keiser-Clark, one of a dozen residents to query Johnson and the town officials during a one hour, 45-minute discussion that dominated the board's meeting.
Keiser-Clark appeared unconvinced by Hogeland's contention that the process is different this time around.
"For many of us, we haven't trusted your judgment, which is different from process," she said. "You investigated last time … . But the judgment about what the consequences were -- that's what we don't see eye to eye on."
Patton said the incidents alleged in McGowan's lawsuit did not come on Hoch's watch and predated the tenures of the current Select Board members. The change from past practice in dealing with the newest allegation was a "fundamental difference" from years past, she said.
"This board, having had our eyes opened to some degree, recognizes that we need to be more upfront, more engaged on these topics, and we are committed to do so," Patton said. "No one is asking for big kudos, big praise. This is the first or second step on a journey a million miles long.
"The goal here today was to be forthright and transparent."
Hoch said at the outset of Johnson's appearance that the town's counsel had concerns about an "open-ended conversation," and at several points in the discussion, Johnson reiterated that he could not talk about some of the specifics in the lawsuit.
But that did not stop residents from raising those specifics to his face -- to the extent that any town discussions are "face to face" in the current Zoom environment.
Arlene Kirsch began her remarks by asking Johnson to tell the attendees about his grandparents. After he talked briefly about those he got to know and those who passed away before he had that chance, Kirsch retook the floor.
"There was a photograph in the [police] station of the man who ordered the murder of my grandparents," Kirsch said. "We can't have that in our town. We cannot have that here."
Kirsch cited that and another incident alleged in McGowan's lawsuit as instances where Johnson's judgment was questionable.
"I am friends with three police chiefs in the area who would have fired that person in a heartbeat," she said.
"A Black kid walking into the station, hearing a racial slur when she's just coming in to get a tour [as the lawsuit also alleges], I expect that person to be fired the way the state trooper [in Revere
] was fired this week for conduct unbecoming."
Margot Besnard asked Johnson point blank why he does not step down from his post and let a new chief come in and start to rebuild the trust that has been damaged in the community.
"That's a valid question," Johnson said. "I believe I am capable of doing the job. I've been a Williamstown police officer since 1992. I have a lot of background and knowledge of the town.
"Back to the litigation, I just ask that you respect the process, and there will probably come a time when more can be said. Right now, it cannot. And I understand how frustrating that is. But that's my reasons."
Several of the residents who used the forum to criticize Johnson for his leadership of the department also thanked him for making himself available in the forum.
"I know this is not easy to do, but it is the necessary thing," Bilal Ansari said. "I also want to say that I hope that there is hope in this work that we have to do in this town to heal. But what you just did this evening [in apologizing] is the first step in a long series of nights like this."
Ansari asked Johnson whether the lives of Black people matter to him.
"Yes, of course," said Johnson, who also committed to keeping a Black Lives Matter sign posted at the police station.
"I want the public to know that my police chief affirms that Black lives matter to him and that my Black life matters," Ansari said.
He also said no one is above the law. And he compared vigilance among the residents in holding their police accountable to vigilance by police in enforcing traffic laws.
"I thank you, but I'm going to hold your feet to the fire," Ansari said.
"You should," Johnson answered.