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Commissioner Gross made a big mistake meeting with Bill Barr

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross during a prayer vigil for George Floyd last month.
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross during a prayer vigil for George Floyd last month.Paul Connors/BH

The head of the Boston Police Department was had.

That’s the most generous way to see last week’s meeting between Commissioner William Gross and US Attorney General William Barr — a meeting Gross insisted on taking amid a national crisis of trust in police, and even after the mayor had asked him not to.

Gross got nothing from the sit-down, apart from blistering and well-deserved criticism from elected officials and others. The attorney general, under fire for his role enabling this appalling president, and for his endorsement of brutal policing tactics, scored big: a photo of himself and the Black police commissioner of a liberal city, standing side-by-side, grinning widely.

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Of course Barr’s Justice Department sent that image out into the world.

How can the man believed to have ordered the violent removal of protesters to make way for a presidential photo-op be as bad as folks say, it screamed. This Black police commissioner — in Boston, no less — seems to like him just fine!

“Defund whatever the hell this is,” tweeted City Councilor Andrea Campbell in response to the photo.

Gross, whose spokesman said he was unavailable for an interview for this column, said he told Barr he didn’t want the photo made public. If that’s true, it was naive of him to believe that the demonstrably dishonest attorney general would stick to any agreement.

“If it gave people the wrong image, that’s on me,” Gross said at a forum on Saturday.

Even more naive, however, are Gross’s claims that he sat down with Barr to give him “an earful” about racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and policing. As if countless others had not tried to persuade the worst AG in history before now. As if Barr would ever listen to any of them.

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“Gross ends up being used as a political prop,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “There is nothing Commissioner Gross could have said to Bill Barr that was going to change his heart and impact the lives of the Black community in Boston in a beneficial way.”

Gross has also defended himself by saying we should keep talking to those with whom we disagree. That would be a reasonable position under normal circumstances. But there is nothing normal about this administration, or this moment.

Barr serves a president — and, it is increasingly clear, no one but that president — who is unabashedly racist, builds power by persecuting immigrants, and defends monuments to the Confederates who fought to preserve slavery and were this nation’s enemy. Barr’s department has enabled Trump’s bigoted policies, eroded police accountability, and the attorney general has made it clear he doesn’t believe racism is a systemic problem in policing.

“To meet with this particular attorney general ... is not only offensive to me as someone who represents a district of Black and brown people and immigrants, but also as a lawyer,” Campbell said.

Gross’s claim that he’s willing to sit down with all kinds of people — “I’ll be damned if I’m going to hide from a conversation with anyone,” he said — is simply not credible, said Campbell and others. He has derided the ACLU as “paper warriors,” and ignored repeated requests to meet with other advocates of Black and brown Bostonians.

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“They have ignored each and every one of our attempts to meet and discuss issues related to protecting and serving Bostonians of color,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, Boston.

Of course, a police commissioner is always going to be more in sync with “law and order” cheerleaders like Trump and Barr than most other Black Bostonians — especially now, when so many are crying out for defunding police, and other long-overdue reforms that would take power away from law enforcement and transform policing in this country.

Defending his meeting with Barr, Gross said he is “not about politics,” but the commissioner does veer into that territory on occasion. Way back in May, when the state’s highest court ordered the release of some inmates to prevent the coronavirus from spreading more rapidly in prisons and jails, Gross did something Trumpian and laid into the judges, who were in fact applying the law in the midst of a public health crisis: “If you feel so comfortable releasing them, let them stay at your house,” Gross said.

“When you do things like that, it sets a mentality out on these streets that people can do what they want,” Gross said. “So remember that at a voting time.”

Yeah, that’s definitely politics.

Look, these are complicated times for any police commissioner who cares about their community — let alone a Black one who himself has faced bigotry. Gross is saying some of the right things. In response to the protests, his department is implementing the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms on the use of force. But to really end racism in policing, the reforms we need are so sweeping — including cutting funding, making it easier to fire officers, and dismantling operations that unfairly target Black men — that you can be sure police unions and the politicians beholden to them will do all they can to stand in the way.

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Building a police department the whole city can trust is going to be a long and painful slog.

Whether he knew what he was doing or not, Gross just made it way harder.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.