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Williamstown Police Sergeant's Lawsuit Alleges Racism, Sexual Harassment
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
10:25AM / Thursday, August 13, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday by a Williamstown Police sergeant paints a picture of a department plagued by racism and gender discrimination.
 
Sgt. Scott McGowan, a full-time police officer in the town since 2002, has named Chief Kyle Johnson, Town Manager Jason Hoch and the town as defendants in a suit alleging discrimination and retaliation against a whistle-blower.
 
McGowan, who is represented by Boston law firm Zalkind, Duncan and Bernstein, is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in amounts not specified in the 22-page complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
 
Hoch on Wednesday afternoon said the town does not comment on pending litigation.
 
He did confirm that McGowan is an active duty officer in the Police Department.
 
The town, which is represented in the matter by Robinson Donovan in Springfield, carries insurance for actions like the ones brought by McGowan, Hoch said.
 
McGowan is alleging the defendants violated Massachusetts General Law and the federal Civil Rights Act by retaliating against him after he engaged the protected activity of "reporting and
opposing sexual harassment and other sex discrimination, race discrimination, racial harassment, and disability discrimination" and encouraging others to enjoy "their rights to be free of unlawful discrimination."
 
He also alleges three counts of discrimination against him under Mass General Law, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act.
 
The discrimination allegations stem from an incident in January 2019.
 
On New Year's Eve, 2018, Johnson sent an email to the department's three sergeants "criticizing them for the limited amount of activity on certain metrics (including parking tickets)," the complaint reads. On Jan. 4, McGowan sent Johnson a reply via email defending his job performance and indicating desire to discuss, " 'physical, emotional and medical setbacks' he experienced because of 'the enormous stress I live through as the result of my biased treatment.' "
 
The complaint indicates the Jan. 4 email by McGowan referred to "silent punishment from [Johnson] based on my outspoken critiques." The complaint indicates the critiques referenced were "sexual harassment" and "race discrimination," about which McGowan had complained in the past, though the complaint also notes that the critiques were not spelled out in the Jan. 4 email.
 
More than a week later, after McGowan had worked several shifts without incident, Johnson and McGowan met and McGowan confirmed the content of his Jan. 4 email, saying, "his increased stress was a result of Johnson's retaliation against him," the complaint reads. The complaint alleges Johnson responded by demanding McGowan's badge and gun, placing him on paid administrative leave and ultimately ordering McGowan to see his primary care physician and obtain a referral for a clinical psychologist for a psychological evaluation.
 
Johnson also sent an email to the department that stated, "Sgt. McGowan will be out for an undetermined length of time on paid Administrative Leave. This is health & wellness related … ," the complaint reads.
 
Ultimately, McGowan was "immediately cleared for duty" after a psychological evaluation in Wakefield at the town's expense, the complaint reads.
 
The complaint says the defendants told the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that "their decision to relieve McGowan of duty was motivated in part by the 'accusatory language' in his January 4, 2019, email.' "
 
On Wednesday afternoon, McGowan's attorney, David A. Russcol, declined a request from iBerkshires.com for a transcript or other record of that testimony to the MCAD.
 
"Unfortunately, I am not able to provide evidence at this time beyond what has been filed with the court," Russcol wrote in reply to an email seeking the documents.
 
Hoch said he had not had time to evaluate the complaint thoroughly enough to comment on the accuracy of material quoted in the court filing.
 
The complaint alleges that since the defendants "regarded [McGowan] as having a mental health issue or other medical impairment," he was a qualified handicapped person under Mass General Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, the defendants' actions relieving him of duty and announcing the move in a way to "damage Plaintiff's reputation," violated those laws.
 
The first two counts of the complaint allege retaliation against a whistle-blower. McGowan is alleging that based on his "protected activity, Defendants engaged in materially adverse actions with respect to McGowan."
 
The most significant "adverse action" in the filing came in August 2019, when McGowan was "passed over" for promotion to the newly created position of lieutenant in the Williamstown Police Department, the complaint reads.
 
The complaint describes a "sham" hiring process that began when Chief Johnson told McGowan as early as June 2018 that "if a Lieutenant position was created, Johnson would promote Michael Ziemba, a patrol officer, to that position." The complaint says Ziemba, unlike McGowan, a sergeant, had no "managerial experience as a superior officer."
 
On June 14, 2019, McGowan sent a letter to town counsel "protesting a pattern of discrimination and retaliation by the town (including relieving McGowan of duty in January 2019)," the complaint reads. The letter indicated McGowan was "addressing these matters through a union grievance process," according to the court filing.
 
Twelve days later, the lieutenant position was posted.
 
McGowan and Ziemba were the only two applicants for the position, and third-party testing showed that Ziemba edged McGowan in five areas "by between 0.6 and 1.8 points out of 100," the complaint reads.
 
The complaint alleges that the assessment process did not follow the requirements of a collective bargaining agreement, and the measurements were subjective. It further claims McGowan's performance on the assessments "was in fact higher than that of Ziemba."
 
"If not for the retaliation and discrimination described above, McGowan would have gotten the promotion," the complaint reads.
 
The "retaliation" referred to in the complaint allegedly was carried out against McGowan because he opposed sexual harassment and a "racially hostile environment in the department," the filing reads.
 
For more than six pages, the complaint lays out disturbing and frequently salacious actions by Johnson that McGowan says he spoke up against going back to 2007.
 
The earliest incident came in the summer of 2007. The complaint alleges Johnson assaulted McGowan on four different occasions by rubbing "his clothed penis up against McGowan's body."
 
The complaint says McGowan called out his superior officer each time, but "Johnson laughed and dared McGowan to write him up."
 
McGowan's filing says Johnson denied the sexual assault to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination but said in a sworn statement to the commission that " '[f]or a period of time early in his tenure as Chief, Johnson and others in the Department … engaged in what Chief Johnson now recognizes was unprofessional and juvenile locker room behavior.' "
 
Again, iBerkshires.com is unable to independently verify either the substance or context of the material quoted in McGowan's filing.
 
McGowan alleges in his complaint that a male dispatcher in the WPD wrote a letter to Johnson complaining of a similar assault with a "clothed penis."
 
"Only after Dispatcher A's letter did Johnson's sexual harassment of both McGowan and Dispatcher A cease," the complaint reads.
 
As for racial discrimination, the complaint alleges that Johnson harassed an officer of Black ancestry identified as "Officer C."
 
"On many other occasions in Officer C's presence, when Johnson saw a person of color entering the police station, [Johnson] would rub his eyes, look back and forth between Officer C and the other person of color, and appear confused as if Officer C were in two places at once," the complaint reads.
 
The complaint alleges that "Officer C" was passed over for promotion in favor of "white men even though [Officer C] scored higher on the promotional exam."
 
In 2014, the complaint alleges, an unnamed WPD employee "shouted a racial slur (the N-word)," in the presence of Officer C and a Black Williams College student who was receiving a tour of the police station from Officer C.
 
The offending employee, identified in the filing at Dispatcher D, admitted to Johnson that he used the word, according to the complaint.
 
"McGowan recommended that Dispatcher D be terminated for his offensive and racist behavior, but Johnson took no official disciplinary action," the complaint reads. "Dispatcher D was removed froma  few scheduled shifts and returned to work."
 
Officer C sought a transfer to a different police force in 2016, the complaint reads, but Johnson and Hoch "held up the transfer." McGowan, then president of the local police union, argued on Officer C's behalf, pointing out racist incidents and the presence of a photo of Adolf Hitler in the locker of another unnamed officer.
 
"In response, Johnson denied the allegations and threatened to terminate Officer C for untruthfulness," the complaint reads.
 
The complaint alleges that Johnson and Hoch were "concerned about possible media coverage" and OK'd Officer C's transfer.
 
McGowan is seeking compensation for lost wages and/or benefits, damage to reputation and earning capacity and "other damages."
 
Hoch, the town manager, said Williamstown has not received a notice of any union grievance related to the activities cited in the complaint.
 
Russcol, McGowan's attorney, confirmed in his email that McGowan does not have any union grievances pending at this time.
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