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Williamstown Police Personnel Suspended Without Pay Over Data Searches
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:53AM / Tuesday, March 23, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Police Department officers who illegally accessed a state database to seek information on town residents were suspended from duty without pay.
That was one of the corrective actions that acting Chief Michael Ziemba outlined Monday in a report to the Select Board about the incident.
"Swift disciplinary actions have already been taken in the form of suspension from duty without pay for these offenders, and all officers, including myself, have been required to complete retraining in the requirements for accessing the [Criminal Justice Information System]," Ziemba said.
"In addition, security requirements for access and login controls for the CJIS system have been tightened, and the logs of all CJIS queries being reviewed regularly by myself."
Ziemba said he looks forward to the outcome of a review by the CJIS administrators, who will look at his internal investigation and provide feedback on the corrective actions he took.
"I'm disappointed in the department members to say the least," Ziemba said. "Those who continue to misstep will be subject to progressive discipline, up to and including dismissal."
In answer to questions from the public and the Select Board, Ziemba said there are "multiple protocols" at the local and state level for accessing data in the CJIS, including the Registry of Motor Vehicles data that was illegally viewed by members of the WPD.
"Those protocols were broken," Ziemba said. "That's why we're at where we're at. From here forward, this is obviously an area we have to monitor. All queries made here are tracked here but also in the CJIS database throughout the state."
Ziemba reiterated that he has found no evidence that any of the information illegally accessed was disseminated by the offending personnel.
Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas asked Ziemba if his personnel gave any explanation for their violation of the CJIS protocols.
"Names, faces, addresses, to familiarize themselves with certain persons, some vocal critics [of the WPD], some not," Ziemba said. All indications were that it was not for malicious intent. It was simply to recognize and familiarize themselves. They indicated that the issues in town the last several months caused distress, and they were unfamiliar with some of the people [debating those issues]."
Ziemba said there was no evidence that the information had been downloaded during the illegal searches and that when the officers involved ended their session on the CJIS database, the data was no longer visible locally. He did have authority to go back and look at whose data was accessed.
Ziemba declined to say how the violations came to his attention, saying he wants to let the CJIS investigation run its course first. He said he looked back over a period of six months for searches that appeared to be outside the course of law enforcement duties.
And he reiterated under questioning from the board that termination would be a possible consequence for repeated misuse of the CJIS database.
"We have to follow the protocols as far as progressive discipline, but I think we've set the standard here for what we expect and made it plainly obvious," Ziemba said. "So if there were any missteps past this, I don't know why we wouldn't seek termination. We've laid it all out there. There are no second chances as far as this goes.
"We can do better, and we will do better."
Later in the meeting, the Select Board voted to add the CJIS infractions the scope of work for Judy Levenson, the Brookline attorney the board hired to do an independent investigation of allegations arising out of last summer's federal lawsuit against the town.
Andy Hogeland also asked and received the assent of the board to add to Levenson's charge the investigation of a complaint against Sgt. Scott McGowan that led to his paid administrative leave this month.
In addition, Hogeland suggested that Levenson be authorized to bring into her probe a private investigator with experience working in the State Police' Internal Affairs Division. He said the added scope and manpower likely would increase the cost of the investigation, previously estimated near $20,000.
"I'd be surprised if it was under $30,000," Hogeland said.
Hogeland said Levenson had been set to start her investigation but that the scope of work kept changing before it could get underway.
He said he expects WPD personnel to cooperate with Levenson, as they did in the past with an investigator who looked into McGowan's complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
"What's unknown is what kind of willingness different witnesses will have because a lot of them don't work for us anymore," Hogeland said.
An independent investigation into the allegations raised in the lawsuit, some going back a decade, has been a consistent demand from some town residents since the suit was unveiled in August.
This month's revelation of the CJIS violations brought a whole new set of questions from the public.
Members of the Select Board last week heard from numerous residents in a series of listening sessions about the anger and fear caused by news of the illegal searches, which reportedly involved 20 residents' information.
"In light of people's fears that the police actions were retaliatory in some ways, that that could lead to a silencing of the public, which is horrifying to me," Anne O'Connor. "I certainly hope people will continue to speak up, feel safe speaking up. I think we want all of our meetings to be safe spaces for people to speak and contribute."
Picking up on the comments to the Select Board in its listening sessions and on social media about the searches making residents fearful, Twink Williams Burns told O'Connor and Jane Patton at the March 17 listening session that she had been telling the board since June about fear that Black residents feel.
"I want to point out, because it has been so heavy on my heart, that it wasn't until our white accomplices, who spoke out, were targeted that something substantive happened," Burns said. "Black pain was not enough for the town to take action. It took white pain for the town to take action. As a Black community member, that was devastating."
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