William Gross, who made history as Boston’s first Black police commissioner, announced Thursday that he’d retire from his post a day later, ending a 2½-year run atop the nation’s oldest police department and departing amid a national movement demanding reforms and accountability in law enforcement.
Gross, who was mulling a run for mayor, told the Globe Thursday afternoon that he had no plans to seek office following Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s nomination as labor secretary in the Biden administration.
“It’s time to take care of my family, my health, and my friends,” Gross, 56, said. He also downplayed the abrupt nature of his retirement, saying he always planned to leave the department when Walsh left office.
“He’s my brother. I was planning on leaving whenever he left, " he said of the mayor. “I came from humble beginnings — came from a pig farm . . . I never wanted to put my name in as a mayoral candidate. The people did.”
In a statement Thursday, Walsh’s office said that Gross’s chief of staff, police Superintendent Dennis White, will “assume the duties and responsibilities” of Gross, making White the second Black officer to lead the force.
Gross’s departure marks the conclusion of a 37-year ascent through the ranks of law enforcement, a highly lauded career capped by an at-times polarizing tenure as the city’s top cop.
A fixture at community meetings and neighborhood barbecues, Gross — often outfitted in his trademark wide-brimmed hat — has long been viewed by colleagues as a collegial presence, quick with a back slap or bear hug, as well as a fierce defender of the department and its officers.
On Thursday, Walsh praised Gross’s work at the department’s helm. Under his watch, Walsh said in a statement, rates of the most serious crimes declined, while the commissioner took steps to improve the department and spearhead several reforms.
“I want to thank Commissioner Gross from the bottom of my heart for his 37 years of service to the Boston Police Department,” Walsh said. ”We can all be proud of the legacy he’ll leave behind.” The mayor did not respond to requests for comment.
The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the city’s largest police union, praised Gross.
“He is a complete gentleman and a professional who was a pleasure to work with through these troubling times,” said union president Larry Calderone.
Gross, who earned $259,653 last year as commissioner, said the agency “has progressed and we’re considered one of the best departments in the country.”
“I’m comfortable with what I’ve done for the city and the department,” he added.
Gross did not say what he what planned to do next, but made clear he will continue to speak his mind and advocate for causes.
“And I think I can be just as effective in my civilian role, helping people in guiding their decisions about what a leader should be and what a leader should look like,” Gross said.
Raised in rural Maryland and Dorchester, Gross joined the BPD as a cadet in 1983, and climbed the ranks before being tapped to replace former commissioner William Evans in 2018.
In a poignant appointment ceremony at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, Gross spoke glowingly of his mother, crediting her with helping him rise from the city’s streets to the department’s top job.
“Mom,’' he said, “it all came from you and God.”
At the time, he also laid out his goals as commissioner — chief among them, the building of trust and relationships through community policing.
But Gross’s tenure was also marked with occasional controversy and spotty results.
A city task force commissioned last year by Walsh in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis took aim at the department’s culture, and criticized the agency for a number of shortcomings, ranging from a lack of diversity in its ranks to issues of transparency and accountability. A series of Globe investigative reports late last year revealed further problems. Among them: discrepancies in how officers of color are disciplined and feted in comparison to their white colleagues, lax treatment of officers found to have broken the law, as well as a couple of cover-ups of officer misconduct that pre-dated Gross’s administration.
The past 18 months, meanwhile, have proven particularly trying, as the department’s relationship with the community has grown increasingly strained amid a groundswell of criticism and protests, part of a nationwide reckoning over systemic police abuses.
Though Boston avoided the kind of violence seen elsewhere during months of demonstrations, video footage from several local protests — including 2019′s Straight Pride Parade and a May 2020 demonstration — appears to depict Boston police acting violently toward peaceful protesters. Their actions sparked a number of investigations and inquiries.
As a leader, Gross routinely jousted with critics.
Just months after he was sworn in, Gross criticized the ACLU as a band of “paper warriors” more concerned with filing lawsuits than helping police combat crime, a move that drew a sharp rebuke from the civil liberties organization.
More recently, he opposed a City Council initiative that would have placed restrictions on police use of chemical agents like tear gas and projectiles like rubber bullets in crowd-control situations. And last year, despite the warnings of Walsh, he posed for a photo with then-US attorney general William Barr, drawing sharp criticism from a number of corners.
“I’m not about politics or political aspirations,” Gross said at the time. “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.”
On Thursday, Gross said he welcomes “constructive criticism,” but not second-guessing from people who don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer.
He bristled when questioned about several of his pledged reforms, such as an increase in diversity, that have not come to fruition.
“We have the most qualified and diversified command staff,” he said. “We’re one of the top models in the country on community engagement. . . . Under this administration, there have been vast improvements.”
“There’s nothing worse than Monday morning quarterbacks who have never walked in anyone’s shoes,” he added.
On his way out, Gross also took aim at the Globe, questioning its commitment to diversity.
Jamarhl Crawford, a community activist who served as a member of the police reform task force, credited Gross for a historic ascension to the top police post. But he also said Gross failed to capitalize on a pivotal moment to move the department forward.
While the commissioner devoted plenty of time to critiquing judges, prosecutors, and community members, Crawford said, “We didn’t seem to see that same level of critique when it came to the Boston police force, which has a historical track record of abuse” that continued under Gross.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who occasionally found herself at odds with Gross in recent years, praised the outgoing commissioner Thursday as a “valued partner” in their joint effort to curb violence in the city.
“We have stood shoulder to shoulder at homicides and other violent crime scenes, working together to restore and build on the trust and faith in law enforcement that our communities need,” Rollins said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing that critically important work with acting-commissioner Dennis White.”
White, a 32-year veteran who also served on the city’s police reform task force, is set to take over on an acting basis Friday before being officially sworn in at a later date.
Prior to his promotion to superintendent and Gross’s chief of staff, White had served in the Office of the Superintendent-in-Chief and in the Bureau of Field Services Night Command.
Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative and state prosecutor who worked alongside White on the police reform task force, welcomed his appointment Thursday, saying he appeared uniquely capable of moving the department forward.
“He understands the depth of challenges that the reforms present, but also has the will sets needed to move the agenda forward,” St. Fleur said. “He’s going to defend his department but also wants to take a look at where the challenges are, to shift and make it better.”
In a brief interview Thursday, White lauded Gross and said he intended to follow Gross’s example and work closely with community partners.
“I want us to be more of a team rather than ‘us against them,’ ” he said.
White also said he didn’t plan to make any major changes at the moment. “The main thing is to just get in the door and make sure the ship is running straight,” he said. “I think the department is moving in a great direction going forward.”
Andrew Ryan and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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