hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2020



Push for police reform roils Williamstown


Officials in Williamstown, Mass., say they want to commission an independent review of policies and procedures at the town police department, which in recent months has been rocked by allegations of racial and sexual harassment.

But some critics, including members of a town advisory panel, say the Select Board needs to move more swiftly and decisively to respond to the allegations – and to sideline officers accused of wrongdoing. Some have called on the board to authorize an independent investigation and to place both Town Manager Jason Hoch and Police Chief Kyle Johnson on paid administrative leave until the results are in.

The Berkshire Eagle reported last month that the Select Board, after holding several closed-door sessions to discuss the matter, issued a statement saying it is searching for an “appropriate consultant” to review town police policies. The board said it is in talks with three firms to conduct a separate review of personnel policies. And the board specified that it plans no changes to Hoch’s position or duties.

The Williamstown Police Department has been under scrutiny since mid-August, when a longtime sergeant in the department filed a federal lawsuit alleging he and others were subjected for years to a hostile work environment that included racist behavior, demeaning remarks and unwanted sexual touching. He seeks $500,000 for lost compensation and damages.

In the lawsuit, Sgt. Scott McGowan, an 18-year veteran of the town police force, claims the department “maintained an atmosphere in which racial harassment and hostility to persons of color are tolerated and perpetrated at the highest level.”

In court papers, and in an earlier complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, McGowan cites incidents dating back to 2007 in which he claims Johnson openly harassed a black officer and engaged in unwanted sexual touching with both male and female officers. The sergeant claims Hoch was made aware of discriminatory conduct within the department but did not investigate.

Town officials have been guarded in their comments about the lawsuit, explaining that they don’t want to compromise the town’s legal defense. The Select Board also has cited the pending lawsuit as a reason not to pursue a third-party investigation into McGowan’s allegations, which include incidents of racial profiling by town police and harassment of a black officer who has since left the department.

In late August, the town released a redacted version of its response to the state anti-discrimination commission. In it, the town says Johnson denies sexually assaulting McGowan, but it acknowledges that the chief and others in the department “engaged in what Chief Johnson now recognizes was unprofessional and juvenile locker room behavior.”

The town also has acknowledged that some other incidents described by McGowan did occur, though it disputes some details of his descriptions. For example, McGowan claims that in 2014, a white Police Department dispatcher shouted a racist slur in the presence of a Williams College student who was being given a tour of the police station by a black officer. McGowan’s complaint says Johnson was aware of the incident but took no action, but the town claims the dispatcher was “appropriately disciplined.”

At a time of heightened focus nationally on racial bias in policing, some townspeople say the fact that such an incident occurred at all is evidence that the town’s police department needs an overhaul.

McGowan’s complaint also cites other incidents of misconduct, including a town officer who kept a photo of Hitler in his locker and another officer who was accused of visiting the home of a private citizen uninvited, repeatedly asking for sex and exposing himself to her. The town says the officer in the latter case was “appropriately disciplined” and that the matter was referred to the State Police, who opted not to pursue charges.

In June, as protests erupted nationwide over the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black people at the hands of police, the Select Board appointed a new advisory panel -- the Diversity, Inclusivity and Racial Equity Committee -- to review local laws in an effort to root out systemic racism. Members of that panel now are pushing for more sweeping reform in light of the allegations raised by McGowan’s lawsuit.

The online news site iBerkshires.com reported that at a meeting of the panel in early October, Select Board Chairwoman Jane Patton stressed that the town cannot simply fire police officers over conduct for which they already were disciplined years ago.

But committee member Aruna D’Souza said the issue isn’t whether officers were “punished enough” for past misconduct.

“What’s at issue is what is the state of the Williamstown Police Department,” D’Souza said. “And is it serving the needs of every member of the community? And does it have the trust of every member of the community? … The dispatcher who used the terrible racial slur may not be guilty of a prosecutable crime, but I think a lot of us would say that action demonstrated they were unfit to serve on the police force.”

Brad Sacco, the president of the Williamstown Police Union, pushed back in a letter to the Select Board in early October, saying the town’s effort to address concerns about racism had created a “hostile environment” for police.

“In fact, the Select Board has sat idly by and watched while a very small, one-sided group has continued to tear away at every practice in our agency,” Sacco wrote.

At the next Select Board meeting in mid-October, iBerkshires.com reported that the board issued a statement saying it “wholeheartedly supports and appreciates the work of all members of the Williamstown Police Department to ensure our community’s safety and security.” The statement went on to urge “all members of the community, even those who may hold concerns about the WPD, to respect and honor its members.”

But some townspeople who attended the virtual meeting objected to that sentiment.
“When someone tells me I have to respect somebody, and I have to honor somebody, it really infuriates me, because people have to earn my respect and trust,” local business consultant Joshua Fredette told the board. “Right now, nobody has it. I’m not seeing you all working hard trying to fix things. Given what’s happened locally and we’re still moving forward as if nothing has happened? As a resident of this town with a biracial family, it’s absolutely infuriating to me.”

In other news from around the region in October:


State sees no crime in paramilitary center
Top state officials in Vermont say they are monitoring the activity of military-style training center in the town of Pawlet whose patrons are associated with anti-government militia groups, but the state says it has found no legal basis for taking any action against the center.

The Slate Ridge training center was the focus of a lengthy investigative report published in late October by the online news site VTDigger. The report detailed the concerns and fears of neighbors who said they’d had a series of confrontational exchanges over the past for years with armed men connected with the center, which has two shooting ranges on a 31-acre property near the New York state line.

VTDigger said the owner of the training center property, Daniel Banyai, declined an interview request. But the news organization cited social media profiles of people who have trained at Slate Ridge and claim to be members of militia groups, and the online report included photos from the center’s Facebook page showing bunkers filled with weapons and ammunition.
The report also quoted from Facebook posts in which Slate Ridge urged followers to prepare for armed action. A post on Oct. 7, for example, warned that “the enemy is urban and it’s getting closer.”

Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Shirling told VTDigger that State Police have investigated a half-dozen complaints against Stone Ridge and Bonyai, but he said none of these incidents have justified a criminal charge.

Gov. Phil Scott sounded a similar note when a reporter for the weekly newspaper Seven Days asked him about Slate Ridge at an Oct. 30 news conference.

“We’re very much aware of the situation,” Scott said. “We’re monitoring the situation. But if it doesn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense, what would you suppose we should do?”


City slashes budget while upgrading office
The city finance commissioner in Saratoga Springs is facing criticism for going forward with a $1.16 million office renovation at a time when pandemic-related revenue losses are forcing the city to slash public services.

The Times Union of Albany reported that the renovations include a new kitchenette and a private bathroom for the city’s 14 finance employees.

Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan defended the project, explaining that because it was funded through a bond issued in 2017, three years before the current fiscal crisis, “the money was spent before Covid.”

But others questioned whether the project have gone forward in the current climate.
“I know my taxes are going up; my quality of public services are being slashed,” said Bob Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College. “I don’t know how she spent $1 million in her office, but I do know police and firefighter levels are going down. Their priorities are really wrong.”
-- Compiled by Fred Daley