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Gross, meeting with clergy amid protests, says police department is ‘on the road to change’

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross (right) greets the Reverend Eugene Rivers on Wednesday before Gross spoke at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester.
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross (right) greets the Reverend Eugene Rivers on Wednesday before Gross spoke at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, meeting with local clergy and other community leaders, said Wednesday that the city’s police department had learned lessons from its controversial past and was “on the road to change.”

The meeting, at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester, took place amid protests roiling Boston and other cities this week following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Gross said the video of the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he took his last breaths "was the worst that I’ve ever seen, not only in my life, but my career.“

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He acknowledged that police departments around the country and the world need to embrace reforms in the treatment of people of color.

“But remember, success and failure," Gross said. "You don’t think that we as the Boston Police Department learned from our past when we were deemed the most racist city, as well as the most racist police department? Absolutely. We did.

"You have to learn those lessons, but I can say now, as well, we’re on the road to change,” he added.

Jacqueline C. Rivers, executive director of the Boston-based Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, highlighted the need for structural changes in policing to address the “inhuman cruelty” that dates to 1619, when Blacks in bondage were first brought to Virginia.

"In the 20th and 21st centuries, it has continued through a pattern of criminal conduct by a minority of rogue officers, which in almost every case have gone unpunished.” Rivers said.

She outlined some policy changes that leaders in Boston and elsewhere could adopt to address systemic problems. They include: hiring diverse groups of prosecutors, independent from local police departments and district attorneys, to investigate police shootings; changing laws that favor police officers in prosecutions of fatal shootings; and fighting against procedures that allow officers with long records of civilian complaints to stay on the job.

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“Profound structural change is urgently needed to rectify this situation on the national stage,” Rivers said at the Baker House, named for a Civil Rights leader.

Gross did not specifically address any of the proposals.

Rivers’ husband, the Reverend Eugene Rivers III, called out the small number of people Sunday who wreaked havoc downtown after hours of peaceful protests.

“Protest is good, but protest is not the politics that gets things done," said Rivers, a long-time community activist. "So we salute and applaud the courage of the young people who have put their bodies on the line.''



Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.