It was 1982 and racial tensions caused by busing in the city were still so high that police regularly were called to South Boston High School to provide security. Leading those officers was Superintendent Martin Mulkern, a heavy-set, clean-shaven officer who loved chatting with the students he met in the high school’s halls nearly every day.
Affable and curious, he took an interest in Larry Ellison, a senior and the first black class president in South Boston High’s history. You should become a police officer, Ellison recalls Mulkern once told him. “You seem to be able to work with people.” It was the first time anyone had mentioned the Boston Police Department to him, says Ellison, who was inspired by Mulkern’s style and kindness. “You could tell he just really cared about people,” Ellison says. “He was a good role model.”
Ellison, 49, is now a Boston police detective and president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, which represents about 350 black, Latino, and Asian officers, and whose calls for more diversity in the Police Department’s upper ranks sparked debate during the recent mayoral campaign. Like Mulkern, he says, he has tried to encourage black and Hispanic teenagers in the city’s rougher neighborhoods to join the department, which is still predominantly made up of white men.
He wishes more officers working in the department today would reach out the way that Mulkern did. “This was a white man,” Ellison says. “But it wasn’t about race. It was about a man trying to help people.”
It is a simple idea that many department observers say could go far in diversifying the department. “What really has to happen is a long-term strategy for the youth and encouraging them to get on board,” says retired Boston police Captain Genevieve King, a fierce advocate for female officers who was the first female captain detective in the city. When she retired in July 2012, she was the only female captain in the department. No women have risen to the rank since.
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