Mayor Martin J. Walsh warned the Boston police commissioner against meeting with the US attorney general, and was surprised to learn that the meeting — which set off a firestorm of criticism — had taken place as the mayor was holding a press conference at City Hall on Thursday, city officials said.
Walsh was wrapping up the news conference, answering questions about police overtime and a proposal to make Juneteenth a citywide holiday, at about the same time a Department of Justice spokeswoman tweeted a picture of Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross and US Attorney General William Barr standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
“I just found that out during the press conference,” Walsh said in an interview with the Globe later that afternoon, adding that he did not know the purpose of the Barr meeting.
“I didn’t get a chance to look into that,” Walsh said. “Let me find out.”
Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for the mayor, later clarified in a statement that the mayor knew the attorney general had requested a meeting with Gross, and that the mayor advised against it “because of what the attorney general and Trump administration stand for.”
That discussion with Gross about the Barr visit was just over a week ago, a police spokesman said. Walsh was not aware that the meeting had been scheduled anyway, until he was asked about it Thursday afternoon, after Barr had arrived at Boston police headquarters.
Walsh told WBZ-TV Friday that he would not have met with Barr because “he has a general lack of respect for people and their rights, and they’re a danger to our country.”
“However, as police commissioner, Willie Gross is welcome to meet with whoever he chooses at the end of the day,” Ormsby’s statement said.
A day after the Barr meeting, the impetus remained unclear. Justice Department officials in Washington did not answer questions about why the country’s top law enforcement official wanted to meet with Gross in the first place. But the blowback was both swift and ferocious.
City Councilor Julia Mejia said the meeting “took everyone by surprise” and represented a lack of coordination and communication by both federal and local authorities. She said she found Barr’s presence in Boston alarming, and thought the meeting between Gross and Barr should not have happened the way that it did.
Since local lawmakers and other public officials did not know about the meeting, “we missed an opportunity to really ask him some hard questions about the people who have been disregarded for so long by the Trump administration,” she said.
Barr has been a flashpoint for the Trump administration’s policies toward immigrants and people of color. He has been widely criticized in recent weeks for his order to remove peaceful protesters outside the White House for a presidential photo op and the Justice Department’s decision to seek the dismissal of criminal charges against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
In a Thursday evening speech, Gross defended the meeting as an opportunity to share the perspective of a Black man who is also a police chief at a pivotal moment in the long history of race relations in the United States. Gross had posed in the photo as a record of the meeting, but did not know it would be posted to social media, a Boston Police Department spokesman said.
Gross said Barr reached out to him, and that he would not hide or back down from a conversation with anyone, saying officials should be forcing such conversations.
“I’m not about politics or political aspirations,” he said Thursday evening. “I spoke for the people of Boston today, to a top official in D.C. that I think needed to hear the message, from a Black man, from a proud police commissioner.”
The commissioner received support from within the law enforcement community. Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, head of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said Gross was put in position to express his concerns to the attorney general, and that he was right to take that opportunity.
“Regardless of who the attorney general is, male, female, whatever party they’re affiliated with, they’re the chief law enforcement officer of the country,” Kyes said. “Politics aside, this is about what we can do to move the country forward, and if Boston, New York, these other places have the best practices that exist, and if the federal government can learn from that, the criticism is unfair.”
US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who joined Gross earlier this week to announce a sweeping indictment targeting alleged gang members, also defended the commissioner. Lelling was not part of the meeting and received short notice that it was happening, which is rare. But he praised the opportunity for Gross to “share his views directly with the attorney general of the United States.”
“If you know Willie, you know he likely had a lot to say,” Lelling said.
He added, “The reaction to the commissioner’s meeting is today’s warning of the terrifying, rising tide of intolerance for even listening to people with differing views. The open exchange of ideas — even those we find ‘unsafe’ — is the bedrock of a free society. I thought most public officials knew that. Gross deserves better. So does Boston.”
Walsh appointed Gross, the city’s first Black police commissioner, in July, 2018.
But Councilor Michelle Wu said Friday the city should not be legitimizing Donald Trump’s administration, which she said has implemented measures “that harm our residents, especially immigrant families and residents of color.”
”We need to focus on standing with Bostonians who have been targeted by the Trump administration, especially undocumented and mixed-status families,” said Wu.
Wu said Boston authorities should not be giving “corrupt officials like Barr a platform or photo op at a moment when we need to focus on building trust with communities.”
Wu said she had a “productive” conversation with Gross about his meeting with Barr, and that Gross conveyed that he discussed with the attorney general the reforms undertaken by Boston police, and also emphasized that George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minnesota was not acceptable.
She noted that the meeting took place the same day the Supreme Court found Trump administration officials unlawfully ended a federal initiative known as DACA, which provides temporary legal status for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The decision will protect, for now, more than 640,000 students and workers from deportation.
”On the same day that issue was being highlighted, to see a leader in our city standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the person who is responsible for tearing kids away from their parents at the border is a step in the wrong direction for establishing trust in Boston,” Wu said Friday.
Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.
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