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Williamstown DIRE Committee Pushes for Transparency on Town, Police Issues
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:01AM / Friday, September 11, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee on Wednesday voted to call on the town to update the Police Department's policy in an effort to increase transparency.
It also filed a few requests for public record, including the committee's second request for access to the town's personnel policies and procedures.
Andrew Art, who has taken the lead in drafting the committee's requests for information from the town, told his colleagues Wednesday that while the DIRE Committee has received information on policies specific to the Williamstown Police Department, its inquiries for more general personnel policies have gone on answered.
"The upcoming information requests are going to reiterate our asks under the public record law," Art said. "If we don't receive information, there's an enforceable mechanism under the law to get what we're asking for. I hope it doesn't come to that. It would be sad if it does.
"We haven't received anything other than on the police."
A careful reading of those police policies prompted the committee to pass its third resolution of the summer.
This resolution calls on the town to update Williamstown Police Department policy ADM 4.01, titled "Professional Standards and Internal Investigations" because the existing policy is not consistent with case law in the commonwealth.
"The current policy has some out-of-date language with respect to internal affairs cases," Art said. "There have been cases that have found certain internal affairs records are not exempt under the Massachusetts public records act. Those records should be available to the public if requested as public records."
Art also informed his colleagues on the committee about several new requests for information that he drafted on behalf of the panel.
The first seeks any correspondence between the town manager and the Select Board regarding a 2018 Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations arbitration between the town and an employee in the Department of Public Works.
"The request for correspondence is to look and see whether the Select Board was made aware of this Department of Labor Relations action," Art said.
The issue of involving the Select Board, which oversees the town manager, in litigation involving the town has become one area of inquiry in the weeks since a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint against the town has come to light. The chair of the Select Board is on record that the panel did not know about the allegations in a federal lawsuit that grew out of the MCAD action until the suit was filed on Aug. 12.
But the town's bylaw gives the Select Board the power to control "litigation or claims" against the town.
The DIRE Committee also is requesting: the amount of any settlement from the 2018 arbitration; the "identification of any litigation and administrative proceedings" involving the town and employees or former employees since Jan. 1, 2010; a list of any settlement amounts greater than $5,000 between the town and current or former employees in that time span; internal affairs reports since Jan. 1, 2010; and the Williamstown Police Department Annual Reports required by department policy for the last 10 years.
"It says that every year the chief shall publish an annual report that includes 'complaint statistics (both citizen complaints and internal investigations), including the number of complaints filed (by type of complaint) and the outcome of the investigations undertaken (by outcome classification)," Art said.
Art also for the first time presented an information request that goes beyond the town line, asking the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office to identify any employees of the WPD who currently are on the DA's "Brady list."
"The purpose of a Brady list is to identify, for court proceedings, individuals who may have incidents in the past that indicate they may not be truthful," Art said. "In a court proceeding, it's a disclosure that's made to the defense so you're provided with information about past potential untruthfulness that may have a bearing on your case.
"There's various standards for how [Brady lists] are compiled, which is not uniform. My understanding is the Berkshire County DA's office is in the process of compiling their list. This request asks if there are any Williamstown Police Department officers currently on the list."
While the Brady list addresses the potential credibility of individual officers, the credibility of the WPD as a whole remains a point of concern for some in the community.
On Wednesday, Jeffrey Johnson broached the subject of how the DIRE Committee might hold a dialogue with the local police -- not to address issues that officers cannot talk about because they are part of the litigation against the town but to discuss broader issues, like the role of police on school campuses.
That concept prompted a comment from Margot Besnard, a member of the town's Racial Justice Police Reform Group.
Besnard referenced an article covering a June "Coffee with a Cop" webinar hosted by the town in an effort to promote a community dialogue.
She quoted Lt. Michael Ziemba, who appeared with Chief Kyle Johnson at the June 3 event and said at the time that unlike in Minneapolis [site of the then-recent killing of George Floyd], Williamstown's small police force could more easily weed out a "problem child."
"If whatever dialogue you hold -- if you do hold one -- turns into a commercial for the Police Department … I'm not interested in it," Besnard said, going on to cite allegations from the Aug. 12 federal lawsuit filed by WPD Sgt. Scott McGowan. "Their lack of action or lack of discipline or consequences for an officer -- and this is not an allegation -- who had a photo of Hitler in his locker and a dispatcher who said the 'N word' to a Black college student … If those don't meet Ziemba's or Johnson's definitions of being a 'rogue officer,' I'm actually even more concerned in hindsight that that's part of the culture of the Police Department.
"I think any dialogue, if you do choose to have one with the Police Department, needs to start off with some kind of shared truths that were missing in June, which is: Racism does exist in the Police Department."
DIRE Committee member Bilal Ansari agreed.
"The only thing that is going to save [the WPD] is new leadership, based on accountability, transparency and truth," Ansari said. "Once that happens … we are ready to start a dialogue. But they have to purify. There has to be a purification."
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