Even before he became Boston’s first Black police commissioner, the big guy with the big smile was a fixture at community meetings and neighborhood barbecues, taking pictures, glad-handing, and bear-hugging anyone who’d let him, back when those things were still allowed. Willie Gross has never been one to shy away from a camera.
But two years after he was appointed to lead the Boston Police Department before a welcoming audience at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, William G. Gross finds himself in an unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable spotlight. The man whose ascension was, to some, symbolic of the city’s progress is now the target of community complaints, his brief tenure overwhelmed by demands to defund police departments and a national uprising over racism and brutality in policing.
At the center of that fraught conversation, Gross is at once a pioneering Black public official in a city still grappling with a long legacy of racism, and a proud vestige of a bygone Boys-in-Blue era of policing that looks increasingly problematic through today’s lens. And some say the cop’s cop who rose through the ranks appears more comfortable wearing the old uniform and badge than carrying a mantle of reform.
He’s publicly traded barbs with a city councilor on social media over how law enforcement should respond to the recent protests against police abuses. And, just this month, he was lambasted for agreeing to meet on his own — in spite of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s recommendation against it — with Attorney General William Barr, who has denied the existence of systemic racism in policing, had protesters forcibly removed for a presidential photo op, and has been at the center of various Trump administration controversies and scandals. A photo of the two men smiling in front of a Boston police flag set off a firestorm.
In early May, Gross also surprised advocates in Boston’s Black and brown communities when he showed up at a crime scene, and — without offering evidence — blamed a spike in street violence on the early release of prisoners from jail because of the risk of coronavirus. “I could care less about whether they get sick in jail or not,” he said on TV news cameras.
“I think people forget — he’s a policeman’s policeman,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has sparred with Gross on policy issues, such as police involvement in immigration matters. He’s no revolutionary, she said. “He never promised to be that. That was something put on him by folks,” she said.
For her, the measure of Gross’s impact will be whether he can elevate residents’ trust in the police department. She said she’s heard positive feedback about Gross’s accessibility within the community and his attempts to diversify the department. Yet, she said, she wonders “if he’s doing himself any favors, the way he talks about … anyone who really questions the police department.”
“His political hashtag is becoming more defining than his police work,” she said. “A good commissioner brings people together. The question is, has he increased police trust and increased the public’s trust in the police?”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh was quick to distance himself from Gross’s meeting with Barr, saying he was against it because of “what the attorney general and the Trump administration stand for.” Amid intensifying community scrutiny over police operations and calls for budget cuts and reform, Walsh redirected millions of dollars in police resources to more health-oriented programs.
But the mayor and the commissioner remain on good terms, Walsh aides said, and Gross has Walsh’s full confidence.
“Commissioner Gross has the knowledge, power and drive to embrace the opportunity that’s before us today to make the necessary reforms to our policies and address equity issues at the department,” the mayor said in a statement, “and he has my full support in doing so.”
For his part, Gross has forcefully defended his decision to meet with the attorney general, saying he was emboldened to push the conversation about what it means to be a Black man and what it means to be a Black commissioner — regardless of the politics of the person at the other end of the table. He said he told Barr, who requested the meeting, that Boston should be a blueprint for a national policing model.
“Police reform is necessary, and we need to have the cold hard conversation,” he told reporters at a press briefing arranged the night of the meeting, which drew immediate condemnation. “I told him that perspective as a Black man, about racism, about how people don’t trust law enforcement. … I don’t play politics, I tell it how it is.”
But amid a social justice movement taking hold now, aiming to root out systemic abuse and oppression in police systems, how far Gross will go to carry out large-scale reforms remains to be seen. He has been at odds with Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who won office two years ago, pledging to restructure the criminal justice system and divert Black and brown people from prison.
When Rollins convened a group of law enforcement leaders from around the state on Beacon Hill to discuss race, equality, justice, and policing, Gross was across town, meeting with Barr. A news release said Gross would join the group’s future discussions.
He’s criticized judges who post low bail for defendants charged with violent crimes. When city councilors recently called for police to abandon their riot gear during peaceful protests, to avoid the stigmatization of such events, Gross accused them of not caring about the safety of police officers. Some community groups have similarly called him insensitive to the needs of neighborhoods most traumatized by violence.
In an interview, Gross said he has heard the calls for change.
“I don’t straddle the line because I always say if you want change, be the change,” he said. “You have to go over that line and move forward or you’re full of shit.”
He pointed to the establishment of a task force to review police practices and policies, including a “10 Point Plan” pushed by Black and Latino legislators. Gross said he sees no difference between their demands and his own vision for policing.
“This always comes up, especially if you’re a Black man, you’re Latino, or Asian, there was this damn misconception that you’re just a token. I would give up my badge first, before I ever was anybody’s token,” he said. “Communities of color in Boston will not stand for that ‘Um, he’s just a token’ or ‘she’s just a token’ ... anymore. No, they will not stand for it.”
These were the expectations that were laid out when Gross took his oath two years ago, at the same predominantly Black church his mother had been attending for decades.
A 33-year veteran of the force, Gross told those in the crowd that day that he maintained the values instilled in him growing up as a Black teenager in 1970s Boston, a transplant from rural Maryland who was raised by a single mother. He found guidance in police mentors who lived near his home on Esmond Street in Dorchester. Within seven years of moving to Boston, he joined the police cadet program, and two years later he was a patrolman, the start of a career that would bring him to the police gang unit, to the training academy, to overseeing the night shift, and to the job of chief superintendent.
He also said he recognized a history of racism in the department, of officers profiling Black men, falsely arresting them. He himself felt it, he said; too often disdained as a Black cadet from Dorchester; passed over for promotions or shut out of programs because of his skin color, he said. It’s a point he reiterated during a recent gathering of Black male community leaders at Roxbury Community College.
“I still wanted to be a police officer,” Gross said, adding that he learned long ago, “I would not let a racist deter me from my right to do what I want to do.”
Randall J. Halstead, a retired police superintendent who mentored Gross and emceed his swearing-in ceremony two years ago, called Gross a fitting leader for the times, a deserving commissioner whom he first met three decades ago when Gross was just a cadet. He still recalls him as a rookie carrying around a copy of “Scientific American,” the popular science magazine.
“Willie’s always been a ‘why’ kid, ‘why would you do this, why would you do that?‘” he said. “He was always ready to engage in a conversation, he didn’t run away from anything at all, and that’s why I bonded with him. Because he’s the real deal.”
A 39-year veteran of the force, Halstead, who is Black, said he recognized the need for police reforms. But he also recognized the need for police in preserving safety.
He added, “The position he’s in right now, I’m glad he’s there.”
Police Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said Gross can only do so much to systemically change the culture of a 200-year-old police department with more than 2,000 officers. And yet, he said, he’s seen incremental successes, from the abandonment of a hair follicle drug test that discriminates against Black officers to the increasing diversification of the department. A third of Gross’s 23-member command staff is Black, three others are Hispanic or Asian, and nearly a quarter are female.
“He’s done some things that haven’t historically been done,” Chrispin said, expressing frustration that, “given his position, unless he’s done a 180 with the culture of the department, people are not going to be happy.”
He added, “It’s not enough for everybody that he’s a change agent, unless he’s change in the way they want him to be.”
He said activists at times can demand “a tsunami of reforms” that do not always align with the purpose or reality of policing. And still, at the Roxbury Community College gathering last week, several community leaders called for more from Gross, as well as from Suffolk Sheriff Steven Tompkins and Transit Police Chief Kenneth Green, two other Black law enforcement leaders who said they recognize the need for change.
The community leaders, including clergy and civil rights advocates, business leaders and men who were wrongly arrested and incarcerated, pushed for the decertification of police officers who commit wrongdoing and for the establishment of an empowered civilian review board. They also sought the full implementation of a police body cameras. And why, they asked, have these reforms not happened?
Michael Curry, a member of the national NAACP board, and former president of the Boston chapter, who moderated the Roxbury gathering, said those who took part in the conversation recognized that this is a moment for change, and see the opportunities for leaders in position, including Rollins, Tompkins, Green — and Gross.
“You have folks who are in a position … to move the agenda. Whether Commissioner Gross will do that will be the challenge,” said Curry. “I agree in respectfully pushing him. That’s what we want to hear from him. That’s what the times are calling for.”
Vernal Coleman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.