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Williamstown Select Board Chair: Town Can't Fire Employees Over Settled Incidents
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:22AM / Wednesday, October 07, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The chair of the Select Board on Monday attempted to explain why the town is not at liberty to take the steps many residents have demanded in the wake of allegations raised in a lawsuit centering on the Williamstown Police Department.
The town cannot fire employees for events that were adjudicated years ago, Jane Patton said.
Those events and the lawsuit that revealed them were not on the agenda for the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, but the allegations have been front of mind for residents since they came to light. And in the second hour of Monday's meeting, one of the attendees raised a point that frequently has been made over the last two months.
"What frustrates me is that there's so much talk about 'protecting police,' and I'm not trying to take away from the job they have or how difficult it is," Joshua Fredette told the committee. "It seems a little bit disingenuous to me that there's a focus on those who are there to protect, who walk around with firearms on their sides, when there has been such an abuse of power, systemically, through the police force. And not just here, right, across the country. And within our town management, in my opinion.
"Those individuals are still in power. Are still walking around. Are still employed. And if you took any other job where somebody had been accused of racism or sexual harassment, I would bet my house right now they would not still be employed, or they would definitely be put on administrative leave. … It's confusing to me why these individuals are still being paid."
Patton, who serves on the DIRE Committee the Select Board established in June, replied that it is not as simple as the town deciding not to employ people based on actions for which the employees already were disciplined.
"The challenge that the Select Board is faced with here is multi-pronged," Patton said. "More specifically about officers still on the force: In the case of the officer involved with the sexual assault [in a resident's home]. That was in 2011. The State Police investigated. It ran its course. The town manager at the time and the chief of police recommended a disciplinary action. It's in the [Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint]. It does not say what the action was. I cannot tell you what the action was.
"We can't go back through a 2020 lens and now re-discipline this person who was disciplined nine years ago. It's a little similar to: Somebody commits a crime in 2005. They rob a bank. They get their prison sentence, they serve their prison sentence. In 2020, people are looking at bank robbery through a different lens. … But you can't go back and say, 'You know what? Five years [in prison] just wasn't enough. So now you've got to do five more.' "
Patton said she understood that her answer might not satisfy people. And she understands that not everyone would agree that harsh enough disciplinary actions were taken by the town in the 2011 sexual assault incident or 2014 incident where a dispatcher used the "N word" in the presence of a Black visitor to the police station.
But whether or not she or current members of the Select Board agree with the severity of the punishments at the time, new disciplinary actions are not an option.
"That's really what we're up against here," Patton said. "We are being asked to look backwards at a time when a different town manager, who was the hiring authority and the employing authority of the Police Department, made the decisions that they made.
"We cannot go back now and say, 'Sorry, now that the MCAD thing has come out and people are aware of it, we have a different lens, and we want to do something different.' I get that that doesn't feel good. … But I do need to make it clear that there was discipline. Because of Mass privacy laws, we can't say what it was."
DIRE Committee member Aruna D'Souza said that she understood that the town cannot violate the double jeopardy clause of the constitution.
"But I don't think what's at stake for me is whether the officers have been punished enough," D'Souza said. "What's at issue is what is the state of the Williamstown Police Department, and is it serving the needs of every member of the community, and does it have the trust of every member of the community and can it have the trust of the community if there are members who have allegedly — or not so allegedly in some cases — done these things."
D'Sousza said "employment is not tied to punishment in this case."
"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, and we're questioning their employment," D'Souza said. "Otherwise, we can never seek to reform or improve existing institutions.
"The town could presumably one day go and fire everyone in the [Department of Public Works] because there was a big scandal in the [DPW]. Whether or not there was a crime involved, there still have to be mechanisms to address problems within the department that are putting members of the community at risk. And if there are no mechanisms, we have to change the way that the town does business."
Patton said she is putting an emphasis on change to prevent future incidents like those alleged in the lawsuit and ensure they will be dealt with appropriately.
"I'm not saying that what was done or not done is appropriate or not appropriate," Patton said of the past discipline. "What I may think is appropriate, you may think is horrible. And vice versa. All our filters are different. All of our feelings of retribution and punishment are different.
"What we do now is say, from this point forward, when something happens, these are the consequences. From this point forward, this is absolutely, third rail, will not be tolerated, immediate action, etc."
The main order of business before the DIRE Committee on Monday was to discuss the next steps the town may want to take after August's town meeting overwhelmingly passed Article 36, which requires, "the Town of Williamstown, as well as its representatives and agencies, [to] report a representative and unbiased picture of any and all hate, exclusion, or intolerance they may witness as being directed towards an individual or group."
DIRE Committee member Andrew Art noted that the warrant article does not specify a means for reporting such incidents and suggested the town will have to develop a procedure for capturing and investigating reports.
The committee discussed several different mechanisms it ultimately could recommend to the town without deciding on a preferred method Monday night.
"I think the goal is to implement it in the way it's envisioned," Art said. "That's going to take some community dialogue. That's all we're doing tonight is starting the process for community dialogue."
In other business on Monday, the committee decided to change its meeting schedule from every week to every other week starting with its next meeting on Oct. 19. The committee already was going to have to reschedule a previously planned Oct. 12 meeting due to the Indigenous Peoples Day holiday. Chair Mohammed Memfis said meeting on the first and third Mondays of each month will keep the DIRE Committee from competing with the Select Board; in past weeks, the DIRE Committee, which meets at 5 p.m., has made every effort to end its meetings by the 7 p.m. start of Select Board sessions.
"Given the fact that we've got a bunch of working groups and individuals on the committee following up on different issues, a once every other week meeting seems more productive," D'Souza said. "That allows time to get work done in between and report back substantially every two weeks.
"I don't think it means we'll be working less, but we may be able to work more efficiently and with more focus."
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