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Williamstown Officials Say Issues Between Town, McGowan 'Resolved'
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
01:54AM / Tuesday, November 09, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday confirmed that the town and Sgt. Scott McGowan have dropped their mutual actions against each other and severed connections.
 
McGowan last week, through his attorney, stated that he had retired as of Oct. 31 after 20 years with the Police Department, about two weeks before a scheduled disciplinary hearing.
 
Interim Town Manager Charles Blanchard could only confirm that McGowan was no longer employed by the town and that more information would be forthcoming.
 
That came Monday night when Select Board Chair Andrew Hogeland opened with a statement about the "recent settlement."
 
"The town and Mr. McGowan have resolved the issues between them, including the town canceling the civil service hearing regarding Mr. McGowan and his agreement to withdraw his MCAD claims against the town," he said. "With this resolution, the town can move forward to address the challenging issues confronting the town. It avoids the expense and distraction of protracted legal proceedings and helps the town and the Williamstown Police Department to concentrate its resources on a number of projects for the improvement of the entire community."
 
McGowan had recently filed a second complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging that he was placed on administrative leave last winter as retaliation for allegations he raised in a 2019 MCAD complaint and subsequent federal lawsuit against the town, the former town manager and the former police chief alleging racism and sexual harassment in the department. 
 
The original MCAD complaint and the lawsuit were dropped last year when the former chief stepped down. Meanwhile, the town had three times in the past month scheduled a disciplinary hearing for McGowan, who then exercised his right to have the hearing held in public. The latest date scheduled for the hearing was to be Nov. 16. 
 
This mutual separation will allow the town to move forward, said Hogeland, ticking off a list of actions being taken under interim Police Chief Michael Ziemba, including participating in a Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships community program developed by the U.S. Department of Justice that bring together law enforcement and community members. 
 
"The police chief formed the community council in July 2021, whose membership includes several residents who had been critical of police practices," said Hogeland. 
 
The department has also started the seeking accreditation from the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Program, which includes achieving professional standards and updating policies, and has undergone a number of training programs addressing such areas as health and wellness, cultural competency, mental health, de-escalation, stress management and suicide prevention.
 
The town has conducted an independent audit of his human resources programs and practices and retained a specialist to update its procedures. 
 
A major project underway is the Williamstown Community Assessment and Research, or CARES, program being conducted in the wake of the revelations about the Police Department.
 
This survey of community safety being led by a group of volunteer social workers will inform the town on better policing practices. Its work is expected to be completed next year.
 
Blanchard reported that the lead researcher, Jennifer James, has resigned. He said he and Select Board member Jeffrey Johnson had met with four members of the Social Work Advisory Committee last week to outline a strategy.
 
"Abby Reifsnyder will be very involved in the project. She has agreed to take on the role of director and Kerri Nicoll will continue on as the project's principal investigator," he said. "Three additional volunteer social workers have agreed to help out and are beginning to do interviews."
 
Of the nearly 200 residents who registered for the survey, 102 interviews had been completed by Nov. 1. 
 
"They have seen that there are some demographic groups that have not been adequately reached. So they're planning on having some outreach to lower-income neighborhoods and others that aren't represented well in the survey [such as Williams College students]," Blanchard said. "They'd also like to do some additional outreach to the Williamstown Police Department to get more participation from from those people as well."
 
Reifsnyder said the project has been divvied up between the core group of volunteers so that no one person has too much. 
 
"I'm going to shift my focus from doing interviews to doing the outreach to try to get these groups that we have not managed to get interviews with so far," she said, adding that now the town manager search committee is suspended she'll have plenty of time. 
 
Nicoll will continue with interview analysis and Elizabeth Whitney will begin a comparison of programs in other communities to prepare for recommendations. 
 
Johnson said he wanted to community to understand that James' departure will not affect the integrity of the study and that there are funds in place to complete it. 
 
"The study is still right on track," he said. "I looked at that meeting as win, win, win so I just wanted to thank you for the professionalism. I think this is moving forward."
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