Pervis Ryans Jr. got a late start as a Boston police officer, joining the force at 30 after a tour of duty in Vietnam and time as an electrician. His career spanned turbulent times, including a violent crime wave in the 1990s, the infamous Charles Stuart case in 1989, and a botched drug raid in 1994 that led to the death of an innocent minister.
Yesterday was Ryan’s first day of retirement after serving 34 years, his latest post as commander of the operations division that includes the department’s 911 call center. He started his day with a walk, then pondered what his departure means for the force.
“I was the only black captain in the department, and now there are none,’’ said Ryans, 65, who helped create the department’s first gang unit in 1990.
“I would have loved to have walked out the door knowing that someone of color remained in that position, but it hasn’t happened.’’
But, he said, “I’ve had a good career, some ups and downs, and I walk out with my head up high.’’
‘I’ve had a good career . . . and I walk out with my head up high.’
Currently, the Boston Police Department has 17 captains, all of whom are white males, according to statistics provided by the department. Officers are promoted to the rank based on results of the civil service exam.
Of the 18 superintendents and deputy superintendents, positions that Commissioner Edward F. Davis can appoint, eight are minorities, including five blacks.
Ryans says his race was a factor throughout his career. As a rookie in the late 1970s, he answered countless domestic violence and other calls in predominately white neighborhoods.
“People there were not accustomed to seeing someone of color showing up at their front door, so my presence would draw a reaction most times,’’ he said.
Ryans’s family moved to the Boston area from South Carolina when he was in seventh grade. He said his experiences growing up in Roxbury and Dorchester and as an African-American police officer led him to begin questioning the validity of the allegations by Charles Stuart, who was white, that a black male carjacker fatally shot his pregnant wife as they were driving through Mission Hill after having left Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The sweeping police response to the case heightened racial tensions in the city, which worsened after authorities discovered that Stuart had shot his wife and then wounded himself in a hoax that consumed Boston.
“I just have to say that at first I was on the bandwagon, but as a person of color who grew up and worked in that area . . . the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t make sense. That was my personal feeling.’’
Five years after that case, a police SWAT team conducting a drug raid misread the floor plans of a Dorchester apartment building and burst through the wrong door. The occupant, 75-year-old Methodist minister Accelynne Williams, died of a heart attack in the ruckus.
“I was the deputy commander at that time,’’ Ryans said. “Of course it was very disturbing, unfortunate, and tragic but mistakes do happen.’’
Ryan said he was not at the scene when the raid occurred, but took responsibility for the incident, which continues to haunt him. “That incident never left me,’’ he said.
Ryans said he got “into a little trouble’’ in his youth and a police detective whose beat included his Roxbury neighborhood sparked his interest in police work. Ryans graduated from The English High School and joined the Marine Corps in 1966. After the military, he worked as an electrician with Local 103.
Ryans joined the Police Department in 1978 and patrolled Mattapan, Hyde Park, Dorchester, and Brighton. In 1986 he was promoted to sergeant. “I paid close attention to the officers who were successful and I engaged them in conversation. A lot of them didn’t mind sharing their keys to success. I’m a determined person and one of my goals was to become a supervisor.’’
In 1988, Ryans was promoted to lieutenant along with at least 20 other officers, four of whom, including himself, were black. “We’re all retired now,’’ he said, referring to the minority officers including Bobbie Johnson and James Claiborne.
Claiborne, who also held the civil service rank of captain, had been the department’s highest-ranking minority officer, serving as the superintendent of the Bureau of Field Services, where he supervised all patrol officers. He had been considered a candidate for commissioner. He left the department in 2009 to become deputy chief at Harvard University.
“Race still plays a huge part in policing, it is the elephant in the room,’’ said Larry Ellison, president of the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. “We have a black governor and a black president, a lot of firsts, but have never had a black police commissioner or even a second in command of color.’’
Ellison, a police detective, said he has looked up to Ryan as a role model: “He was very approachable and has always extended himself to help the community. He still lives in the area, which says a lot.’’
Ryans said the height of his career was his promotion to captain in 1992 through the civil service exam, after being appointed in 1990 acting captain.
“I really think the pinnacle of my career was when I put those bars on permanently. When Commissioner [Francis] Roache made me acting captain, it gave me the incentive to study harder for the exam, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed.’’
Ryans, who holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from Anna Maria College in Paxton, said he has been a mentor to other minority police officers.
“Certainly, they felt comfortable approaching me, and I’ve followed the careers of some officers. I’d like for them to look at me and say it can be done. Hopefully that’s my legacy, to show others that it is possible even in a system that you may not agree with.’’
Brian R. Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.