It’s early days, but if promoting Billy Evans and Willie Gross to lead the Boston Police Department is any indication, Marty Walsh is going to be a good mayor.
Like many people who live in South Boston, Evans has been known to circle Castle Island. Except, unlike most, he does it every day, before dawn, running at a good clip.
Boston’s new police commissioner, an inveterate runner, is old school in the best sense of the term, and new school when it comes to innovation. His neighborhood accent, and a marathoner’s build that gets lost in a suit, belie a keen mind that aced his promotional exams.
Years ago, while shooting the breeze outside Fenway Park, I told him that I heard he had gone to college in Hawaii before moving back home and going to Suffolk.
“Yeah,” Billy Evans replied. “I had to get out of Hawaii. The weather was too nice.”
He didn’t like distractions then. He doesn’t like them now. But he’s an eminently patient guy, as his pragmatic de-escalation of the Occupy Boston protest showed a couple years back.
Because of how he grew up, Evans knows how to wait his turn, and now it’s his turn. He grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in a three-decker in Southie, not only the youngest but the smallest of six boys. His brothers called him Mouse, and it stuck. Even today, when he runs by the L in Southie, he is more likely to hear someone yell “Hey, Mouse!” than “Hey, Billy!”
His mother died of cancer when he was a toddler. He wasn’t 10 when his brother Joe got hit and killed by a car. And Billy Evans was barely a teenager when his dad, a truck driver, died. Paul Evans did a remarkable job keeping his younger brothers on the straight and narrow, and became a cop after a hellish combat tour as a Marine in Vietnam. Billy followed Paul onto the job, and now assumes the commissioner’s job that his brother took on 20 years ago.
Anybody who worked with Billy Evans will tell you he was a good street cop, aggressive and fearless but fair. Like his runner’s heart rate, the key of his demeanor is low. But that masks an intensity that other cops respect.
Willie Gross, the new chief of the department, is a more imposing presence. But, as a street cop, and in his ability to build the civilian alliances essential to community policing, Gross is very much like Evans.
Seventeen years ago, the late Walter Fahey, a great street cop, was about to leave the District 11 station in Dorchester for his last tour of duty. Fahey was a cop for 40 years. He’s the only Boston cop to voluntarily surrender his gold detective’s badge to go back to uniform because he missed street work. At 64, he won the department’s highest honor, for ending a hostage standoff. And two weeks before he was forced to retire at 65, he was chasing a knife-wielding thug through the streets of Fields Corner.
Fahey was a legend, and I’ll never forget what he said that January night in 1997. He pointed across the squad room at a young black guy, and whispered: “You see that cop? That’s Willie Gross, and he’s all cop. He’s one of the finest police officers in this city.”
Having Walter Fahey say you’re a great cop is like having Ted Williams say you’re a great hitter.
But, like all good cops, Gross is respected as much for his brains as his brawn. He is very much in the mold of the late, great Superintendent Willis Saunders, who, like Gross, was the city’s night commander, and who led by quiet example.
On that frosty night, 17 years ago, Walter Fahey said something else about Willie Gross. Fahey said he’d run through a wall for him. That’s how most cops feel about Billy Evans and Willie Gross. That’s good for everybody, except the criminals.