William Evans grew up in South Boston, raised by his four older brothers after their parents died. William Gross was one of three children brought up by a single mother in Dorchester, where many in the neighborhood ran away from police even when they had done nothing wrong.
Each could have ended up in the back of a cruiser, rather than driving one, they acknowledge. And now, together, they will run the Police Department, bringing to bear their deep knowledge of the city and the department where each has spent more than 30 years.
Evans, 55, was officially named the department’s commissioner Thursday morning at a press conference packed with more than 100 commanders, police officers, and city employees. Soon after Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the appointment, Evans proclaimed his first decision as commissioner: naming Gross the first black superintendent-in-chief of the department.
“I think together we make a great team,” Evans said.
They are taking the helm at a time when the homicide rate is at a 13-year low and overall crime is down. Still, the overall number of shootings in the city remains high and the department is under pressure to diversify its upper ranks — an issue that became a flashpoint during the mayoral race.
Gross, who led the gang unit and was night commander, said he hoped his new appointment will show young black men living in Boston’s tougher neighborhoods what they can accomplish.
On Esmond Street, where he grew up, neighbors helped his mother raise her young family and taught him to strive. Still, many felt suspicious of police, who in the 1970s employed a more intimidating style of policing.
“They weren’t approachable,” he said. “Of course there were great police officers out there but as a culture, it wasn’t about community policing back then.”
Gross, who turns 50 on Feb. 1, said that perception has changed considerably, but the department still must persuade the city that the police are devoted to a strategy that emphasizes working with neighborhood leaders to prevent violence rather than simply reacting to it.
Department officials also talked about their desire to help children and teenagers in Boston who grow up with little access to jobs, good education, or solid role models.
“When I see these kids, I sort of see a little bit of myself,” said Evans, the youngest of six brothers, one of whom died young. A priest and his four other brothers kept him on a straight path, he said.
“That made all the difference in the world,” Evans said. “My brothers brought me up, watched over me and I think I did pretty good.”
One of those brothers is Paul Evans, now 64, who served as police commissioner from 1994 to 2003, when the city saw a huge drop in homicides, a period now known as “The Boston Miracle.”
“I’m thrilled,” Paul Evans said in an interview. “He’s worked awfully hard. One thing I can say about my brother is everything he’s accomplished on the job he did on his own.”
Evans, a voracious runner who wakes up before dawn every day to run 7 to 8 miles, is known as a tenacious officer who pores over daily police reports, looking for patterns. Soft-spoken and rail-thin, he is the physical opposite of Gross, a tall, husky officer who smiles easily and hugs anyone who will let him.
Evans and Gross said their priorities will be reducing the number of guns on the street, promoting community policing, and diversifying the ranks of the department.
Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said many of his members are worried that little will change in the department: They consider Evans and Gross holdovers from the previous administration, which the organization accused of failing to do more to diversify the department.
Evans, who rose from police cadet in 1980 to captain, was promoted to superintendent in charge of the Bureau of Field Services under former commissioner Edward F. Davis.
Davis, who also promoted Gross, had such a poor relationship with the association that the organization voted “no confidence” against him. He in turn lambasted them in a letter he posted on the department’s website.
“They’re not against the appointments but they’re concerned,” Ellison said of association members. “They want to see people who they know will fight when there are inequalities going on.”
Walsh said that his goal is to work closely with the associationand to push for a police department that reflects the racial diversity of the city, a goal he set during the mayoral race.
“I’m going to live up to my word of what I promised in the campaign,” Walsh said.
Others in the department have responded gleefully to the appointments. The roomful of police applauded loudly, whistling and whooping when both Evans and Gross were introduced.
Ronald MacGillivray, vice president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said Gross is “fabulous” and Evans is a home-grown leader who has “touched every rung of the department.”
“He’s just done it all,” MacGillivray said. “There is no one who can question his credentials. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
The Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, a union whose relationship with the Davis administration was strained at best, posted “We believe this is the beginning of a second BOSTON MIRACLE!!” on their Twitter account.
The union’s president, Jack Kervin, said many are excited to see two well-respected officers with a strong work ethic get the top jobs.
“They’re not easy bosses,” said Kervin, who supervised Gross and worked as a lieutenant under Evans. “They’re pleasant but they expect you to perform. They don’t ask you to do something that they haven’t done.”
Gross’s promotion means that the current superintendent-in-chief, Daniel Linskey, will be demoted to his civil service rank of lieutenant.
Linskey, who said he hoped to be transferred to the department’s police academy, praised Evans and Gross.
“You can’t go wrong with Billy and Willie,” Linskey said in a phone interview. “They are two of the best.”